Genres and Production Cycles
Genres and Production Cycles
Cycles of Topical Production
Contrary to a popular critical perspective that 1980s Hollywood marched in lockstep with the Reagan revolution, film production during the decade exhibited multiple and often contradictory sociopolitical perspectives.1 Existing in some tension with this social engagement were the era's genre pictures. Genre production was prolific, and many of the period's biggest hits were straight genre pieces.
While genre films can be inflected with social content, what may count for most viewers are the pleasures derived from the repetition of familiar elements of character and story. If a genre persists over decades, it does so because its core elements transcend the issues of a political-social period, even as individual pictures in the genre may be responsive to a specific Zeitgeist. High Noon (1952) speaks to the conflicts of the McCarthy period, but its core genre elements gesture beyond this moment. Portions of this film can be illuminated with reference to 1950s political culture, but the genre is not reducible to them, and neither are the building blocks of setting, character, and conflict that make High Noon a Western. Similarly, while E.T. (1982) may indeed manifest certain tropes of the Reagan period, its continued popularity demonstrates that it also speaks beyond these.
The industry's investment in traditional genres, then, should be seen as a measure of institutional stability and the continuity of product lines with built-in audience appeal. This investment often superseded the phenomena of eighties political and social culture, but not always. Many movies in the eighties were creatures of their time, and the period unquestionably influenced filmmakers, though not in any hoary base-superstructure manner. The Reagan years were an intensely ideological period, with a symbolic politics waged in the cultural arena. American film responded to this climate. The movies offered supportive as well as contentious responses, but these did not correlate in any clean way with the period's genres. Significant responses were found not only in cycles of production addressed to topical political and social issues that were salient for the period but also in extremely volatile controversies over the moral content of contemporary film. In this chapter, I first discuss the status of popular genres during the decade and then explore the cycles of topical filmmaking and their connection with the era's defining social issues. In the next chapter, I explore the controversies that centered on issues of movies and morality.
Without question, the decade's most popular genre was science fiction and fantasy, furnishing more blockbusters during the period than any other genre. These included six of the decade's top ten films: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and Batman (1989). The genre was dominated by the high-tech blockbusters fashioned by George Lucas (who nevertheless had one prominent bomb in Howard the Duck ) and Steven Spielberg and the horde of sci-fi films that imitated their formulas. The second and third installments of Lucas's Star Wars epic—Empire and Jedi—premiered in the first half of the decade, and the series influenced scores of lesser films that emphasized space battles, video game aesthetics, and movie serial characters and narratives: Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Flash Gordon (1980), Tron (1982), The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984), Last Starfighter (1984).
Another strain of eighties sci-fi emphasized whimsey and light comedy and, in this regard, was probably influenced by the sentimentally bickering robots R2D2 and C3PO in the Lucas productions, as well as Spielberg's blend of comedy and sentiment in E.T. These films included Cocoon (1985), Short Circuit (1986), *batteries not included (1987), Cocoon: The Return (1988), My Stepmother Is an Alien (1988), and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). Spielberg's Amblin Productions was responsible for *batteries not included as well as for the time travel hits Back to the Future (1985) and Back to the Future, Part II (1989).
Beyond the Star Wars films and the Spielberg orbit, the genre boasted two additional high-profile and very popular franchise series, the Superman and Star Trek films. Both series survived ponderous, undistinguished debut films in 1978 and 1979 to flourish in more imaginative subsequent installments. Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983) were directed by Richard Lester, who brought his flair for oddball comedy and self-conscious style to the material, taking it in unexpected and delightful directions. Superman III, in particular, was that rarity, an eccentric blockbuster. Costarring Richard Pryor, it featured a less-than-virtuous Superman dueling with his darker side. But the picture was regarded as unacceptably deviant, and it marked Lester's last turn at the helm of series (a similar fate befell Tim Burton after Batman Returns ). Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) passed to Sidney J. Furie and was a dull, plodding, preachy affair in which the Man of Steel tries to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
The Star Trek series flew on profitably throughout the eighties and into the nineties and spawned, in turn, several spin-off TV series. In contrast to the high-tech, special effects—driven Star Wars pictures, the Trek films emulated the original TV series in their emphasis on character and ideas, with effects work relegated to a background element. This design was pitched to the fans of the original shows because these fans had kept the property alive after the TV series was canceled, and their devotion sustained its evolution into a highly successful film series.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) brought back a popular villain from the TV show to do battle with the crew of the Enterprise. Khan was played with scenechewing delight by Ricardo Montalban in a striking, pectoral-baring costume. The tone of the film, at once exciting and goofy, was perfectly matched to its television progenitor, and its popular success kickstarted the film series in the eighties. Actor Leonard Nimoy (who played Spock, everyone's favorite Enterprise crew member) directed the next two entries, widely regarded as among the best in the franchise: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). William Shatner (who played Captain Kirk of the Enterprise) took over directing chores on the next installment, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), a relatively weaker entry that lacked the strong narrative drive of previous episodes.
The Star Trek series counterbalanced the relative anti-intellectualism of the Star Wars films by honoring the cerebral components of the genre, which had long enabled writers and filmmakers to use science fiction as a framework for exploring ideas. This aspect of the genre, historically important in both literature and cinema, had been diminished in Lucas's effects-driven pictures and in Spielberg's sentimental, family-oriented productions. Other notable films that used the genre in a more intellectually inclined direction included Ken Russell's Altered States (1980), in which a scientist (William Hurt in his film debut) conducts mind-altering experiments on himself; Fred Schepisi's Iceman (1984), about the culture clash ensuing from the discovery of a Neanderthal man frozen in ice and revived by scientists; 2010 (1984), the long-awaited but rather pedestrian sequel to Kubrick's magesterial 2001: A Space Odyssey, (1968); and Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), a futurist rendition of Orwell's 1984 that manages to be both visionary and terrifically bleak. Grim portents were offered in the Mad Max films—The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max beyond Thunderdome (1985)—and in a large cycle of dystopic films that used the genre within a sociopolitical context to warn of an antidemocratic future. I examine this cycle later in the chapter. One prominent film in that cycle—The Terminator (1984)—launched the career of director James Cameron (discussed in ch. 6). Working in the genre for the rest of the decade, Cameron followed Terminator with Aliens (1986), the sequel to Ridley Scott's trend-setting Alien (1979), and The Abyss (1989).
The extraordinary popularity of fantasy and science fiction was a function of the narrative approach exemplified in the Spielberg-Lucas films as well as the industry's innovations in the technology available to filmmakers, primarily in the areas of computer effects and sound. Offering sensual light-and-sound shows anchored to breathless narrative pacing, these pictures were unprecedented in their technical virtuosity and helped transform cinema into an amusement park ride for millions of viewers. The moviegoing public responded enthusiastically. Fantasy and sci-fi had the highest average earnings of top box-office films by genre throughout the decade, with an especially strong showing in the years 1980-85. The industry's research and development of improved sound systems and computerized effects paid big box-office dividends. George Lucas and his engineers at Lucasfilm were instrumental in helping lead this technological makeover.2
During the 1980s, digital imaging began to make some inroads, but it did not take off in a big way until the following decade.3 Soon to become a leading effects house, Pacific Data Images (PDI) was founded in 1980. Its initial clients included television networks, and it designed eye-catching computer logos for "Entertainment Tonight" and ABC sports programming including the 1984 Winter Olympics. By the later eighties and into the nineties, PDI was producing digital effects for the major studios in such high-profile films as Carlito's Way (1993), Batman Returns (1992), Ghost (1990), Natural Born Killers (1994), True Lies and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).
Fantasy and sci-fi films showcased the early applications of digital effects, thereby announcing the advent of a new chapter in the capabilities of commercial filmmaking. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan contained a striking sixty-second effects sequence showing the transformation of a dead planet into a lush and living world. Created by Lucasfilm, this minute of color computer graphics included a convincing rendition of fire and three-dimensional geographic features including mountains and oceans. The computer effects were not merely a part of the sequence but in fact were the sequence, and they generated tremendous interest throughout the industry in exploring these new capabilities.
Unfortunately, the next applications were showcased in films that had weak narratives and performed poorly at the box office. Disney's Tron contained over forty minutes of computer animation, much of it composited with live action elements, and The Last Starfighter featured twenty minutes of computerized space action. The new effects were insufficient to boost the popularity of these pictures. In the meantime, Lucasfilm included short computer-animated sequences in Return of the Jedi and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), but it wasn't until Cameron's The Abyss that CGI (computer generated images) finally came of age in in the slithery, watery alien designed by Industrial Light and Magic.
The creature had started in the computer as wireframe animation, onto which the animators composited a rippling liquid texture (in a process called texture mapping) and shimmery highlights that gave it a three-dimensional appearance. Furthermore, in a way that dramatically heralded the future, the CGI creature interacted in a convincing and fully dimensional way with the human, live-action elements of the shot. When actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio touches the creature, her finger goes "inside" the alien, glimpsed through its translucent surface, and it, in turn, reacts to her touch, rippling with sensation. The effect is completely credible, even though the alien existed only in computer space and had no live-action correlate in the shot. Here lay the future of digitally based filmmaking: the ability to convincingly integrate the 2D and 3D components of a scene, computer space with live-action space. From this flowed all of the jawdropping digital effects of the nineties in pictures like Terminator 2, Death Becomes Her (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), and True Lies.
As eighties films began the shift toward digital animation, they also benefited from dramatic improvements in sound. Used on E.T. (1980), Poltergeist (1982), and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), digital audio heralded a revolution in sound production. In contrast to analog methods of sound recording and mixing, digital audio offered a greatly expanded dynamic range and the elimination of background noise and signal degradation caused by the multigenerational pre-dubs commonly used in a sound mix. As a result, digital audio gave sound engineers the ability to manipulate sound elements without signal loss and gave viewers increased separation of sound elements in clean and well-articulated mixes.4
The introduction in 1982 of audio CDs in the consumer market helped drive the conversion to digital in film production by accentuating the disparities between film sound (merely adequate) and the much higher quality available to home listeners on their audio systems. Initially during the changeover, film productions used an unsatisfying combination of analog and digital formats because sound editing was still done on magstriped film and with sound sources archived on magnetic tape.
But the digital storage of sound information was not far off. In 1984, Lucasfilm had a proprietary digital sound workstation (audio signal processor, or ASP) that stored and mixed sound in digital format. For Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), the ASP workstation created complex background sound effects. For example, when Jones is surrounded by a bevy of arrows flying toward him, ASP electronically extended the arrows' whizzing sounds and added Doppler effects (a means of spatializing sound by altering its pitch). The digital audio project leader at Lucasfilm stressed the efficiency of this new approach as compared to more traditional methods. About the arrow scene in Temple of Doom he noted, "It would have taken three people to do this on normal equipment: one to control the tape speed to create the Doppler effect; one to control the left-to-right pan; and one to ride the volume fader. We programmed the controls of the ASP so that these effects could be controlled just by tweaking a knob or two."5
As for sound reproduction in the theater, it was multichannel but not digital. Release prints still carried an optical analog sound track on which the sound information was visually encoded. Dolby had introduced a four-channel stereo optical sound system in 1976. This was Dolby Stereo, in which the left and right channels on the stereo track were encoded with four channels of information (left, center, right, and surround). Extraced by a decoder during playback, they helped make the sound field far more spatial and three-dimensional than it had been previously. (For the 70mm format, Dolby had introduced in the 1970s a six-channel system that carried stereo surrounds.) Because the stereo track carried by the film was still an optical one, however, the dynamic range captured by a post-production sound mix was severely limited. When converting the signal from magnetic tape to the optical track during post-production, directors and mixers were invariably disappointed at the loss of sound, compression of dynamic range, and distortion in the upper register that occurred. Low-volume sound effects would vanish into the hiss of the track (a problem that Dolby Noise Reduction worked to minimize). High volume produced a different problem. On optical tracks, the louder the sound, the larger its visual encoding (i.e., the more space it occupies on the track). Since the track space available between frame line and sprocket holes is fixed, volume levels that exhaust this space edge into harsh noise. Thus, though digital techniques were making inroads into post-production, sound playback in theaters was still an analog process.
While Dolby Stereo proliferated in the late 1970s and the 1980s, many theater auditoriums continued to maintain substandard audio equipment, which degraded the benefits that Dolby Stereo brought to film sound. To improve theater sound and complement the advances being made by Dolby Laboratories, George Lucas in 1980 commenced development of a program to specifiy a set of criteria to ensure optimal theater sound. In 1982 Lucasfilm constructed a state-of-the-art post-production facility where the THX system (named after his first feature, THX-1138 ) was developed. Introduced in 1983 and implemented at two theaters presenting Return of the Jedi, the THX Sound System Program was a set of technical standards for gauging the adequacy of theatrical sound. THX-certified theaters were those that met the specifications (for image was well as sound) of Lucasfilm's engineers and, consequently, were those in which viewers could be assured of hearing the best possible sound. The THX program examined and tested a theater's auditorium for levels of background noise, acoustic isolation, amount of reverberation, the viewing angle of the screen, alignment of the projector and conformation with SMPTE's standard of sixteen footlamberts of light from the screen, and use of equipment on the THX Approved Equipment List. The program assessed a theater's architecture, acoustics, and equipment and would make any necessary custom installations. Exhibition had been the film industry's weak segment for decades. Poor screen illumination and inferior sound reproduction effectively erased the advances made by cinematographers, Eastman Kodak, and Dolby Laboratories in improving the look and sound of contemporary film. The THX certification program addressed this problem and helped raise the industry's and the public's awareness of the factors affecting film presentation in theaters. Theaters that underwent the expense of the THX upgrade could then use their certification as a marketing tool. In 1986, Lucasfilm began research to extend the THX program to home audiovisual equipment, and in 1990 unveiled the Home THX Program for use in calibrating home theater to optimum specifications.
As Lucasfilm's THX program began to upgrade the quality of theatrical presentation, Dolby continued to make improvements on its system. In 1986, Dolby SR (Spectral Recording) offered an improved four-channel optical system with noise reduction that made possible a wider dynamic range and better frequency response. Innerspace (1987) and Robocop (1987) were among the first films exhibited in Dolby SR. For the home videotape market, Dolby Surround decoders, debuting in 1982, enabled consumers to play videotapes of Dolby-encoded movies with three-channel reproduction (left, right, and surround), while the subsequent marketing of Dolby Prologic receivers enabled the decoding of center-channel information as well. Thus, sound in cinema and in high-grade home environments had become remarkably dimensional. Whereas earlier generations of film carried only one-channel sound, reproduced from what was effectively a center-channel speaker behind the screen, Dolby's four-channel system created a wide and enveloping sound field with left and right front channels, a center front channel, and a surround channel. The front left, front right, and center channels had been conceived for a representation of sound continuity, so that, as Dolby engineer Robert Warren pointed out, "if a sound moves from left to right, the sound field in front is consistent. You simply observe the motion of it moving; you don't hear it changing color or changing timbre as it shifts."6 By contrast, the surround channels were reserved for ambient effects and to provide the viewer with an immersive audio experience. As Warren explained, with surround the concept is
to flood the auditorium with sound from everywhere but the screen, so that you have a very wide natural sound field that really doesn't have any direction or motion to it. Since the surround channel is primarily used for ambiences … room tone, and special effects, fly-ins and fly-outs, you don't want the surround channel to detract or to pull your attention away from the story on the screen…. Probably the best way to observe sound that's coming from the surround channel is to turn it off. If you can hear the difference, then it's probably loud enough for ambiences and room tones.7
Despite the advance that this more spatialized sound field represented, Dolby mixes still had to contend with the inherent limitations of optical sound tracks. This problem did not change until the introduction of Dolby Digital in 1992. The process debuted with Batman Returns and carried an optical analog sound track as well as a digital one stored between the sprocket holes. It was a 5.1 channel system that configured the surround speakers as rear left and rear right channels and added a separate channel dedicated to bass signals (the .1 channel). With its multitude of discrete channels, Dolby Digital stimulated audio engineers to produce extremely aggressive mixes, with emphatic use of surround channels far beyond the mainly ambient uses that Robert Warren described for Dolby Surround. Since then, competing digital systems have proliferated, such as Sony Dynamic Digital Sound (SDDS) and DTS, which produces sound via CD playback synched with film projection.
In the eighties, digital sound playback in theater auditoriums remained a goal yet to be achieved. The end result of digital audio production techniques was an optical sound track on the release print. As a result, the industry moved slowly to embrace all-digital production practices. For example, the digital editing of an entire sound track did not occur until 1992's Lawnmower Man.8 Despite the industry's slow adoption of all-digital sound, filmgoers experienced striking improvements in the audio quality of motion pictures and in the expressive sound designs that multichannel encoding and selected digital audio methods made possible. While these changes cut across all genres of film, their effects were most striking in fantasy and science fiction because of sound's ability to heighten the credibility and physicality of visual effects, an important part of such filmmaking. Augmenting its popularity with moviegoers, fantasy and sci-fi functioned as the industry's showcase for the dramatic new advances in electronic effects and audio quality.
Audiences always enjoy laughing, and comedy films performed very strongly in the 1980s, with outstanding box office throughout the decade. Special effects were on display in a few of the biggest pictures (Ghostbusters , Gremlins , Honey, I Shrunk the Kids ). More commonly, though, the era's comedies worked on the basis of situation, performance, and writing, although these varied wildly in their degrees of sophistication. Outstanding writing and refined comic performances helped make these the decade's most distinguished comedies: Airplane (1980), Arthur (1981), S.O.B. (1981), Melvin and Howard Victor/Victoria (1982), Diner (1982), My Favorite Year (1982), Tootsie (1983), Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), Roxanne (1987), Moonstruck (1988), A Fish Called Wanda (1988), and The War of the Roses (1989). Melvin and Howard, Diner, Moonstruck, and Roxanne are low-key films in which the humor charm grows organically out of the characters and their situations. Among the finest character-centered comedies were those directed by Blake Edwards, whose prolific output included S.O.B. and Victor/Victoria as well as The Man Who Loved Women (1983), Micki and Maude (1984), A Fine Mess (1985), That's Life (1985), and Blind Date (1987). Two other directors whose long film careers are identified with sophisticated comedy made their final theatrical films in the eighties: Billy Wilder (Buddy Buddy ) and Stanley Donen (Blame It on Rio ).
By contrast with the elegance and sophistication of these productions, many others were more frantic concoctions in which jokes and physical stunts dominated story and character. A string of Burt Reynolds car-crash comedies helped sustain his popularity while eroding his critical reputation: Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981), Stroker Ace (1983), and Cannonball Run II (1984). In the latter half of the decade, his career slipped into obscurity, in part because of the fallout from these relentlessly lowbrow pictures. The counterculture comic team of Cheech and Chong starred in Cheech and Chong's Next Movie (1980), Cheech and Chong's Nice Dreams (1981), Still Smokin' (1983), and Cheech and Chong's The Corsican Brothers (1984). "Saturday Night Live" alumni Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd made the transition to film with mixed results in Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981), Continental Divide (1981), Neighbors (1982), National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), Doctor Detroit (1983), and Fletch (1985). Though an occasional guest rather than a "Saturday Night Live" regular, Steve Martin sustained the most prolific film career among those comics associated with SNL: The Jerk (1980), Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), The Man with Two Brains (1983), The Lonely Guy (1984), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), Roxanne (1987), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). Roxanne especially is a delight, a sweet romantic fable that Martin, as the film's producer, writer, and star, intelligently modeled on the Edmond Rostand play Cyrano de Bergerac.
A huge number of comedies in the 1980s played to the nation's teenage audience, a demographic group courted by the studios because of its voracious moviegoing habits. Amy Heckerling's seminal Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) captured with great vitality the hormonal obsessions and mall-centered lives of Southern California teens. Sean Penn's wonderful performance as spaced-out, cool-dude Spicolli set the trend for Bill and Ted, Beavis and Butthead, and every other doped-out funster that came after. In the wake of Fast Times, teen comedies proliferated: Porky's (1982), Spring Break (1983), Porky's II: The Next Day Valley Girl Revenge of The Nerds (1984), Bachelor Party Weird Science (1985), Real Genius (1985), Back to School (1985), Porky's Revenge (1985). The longest-running adolescent-oriented comedy series was probably the Police Academy series. Debuting with Police Academy (1984) and starring Steve Guttenberg as the chief oddball of a group of slapstick dolts enrolled as police-in-training, the series eventually ran into the mid-1990s with seven installments. The best of the teen comedies, though, were those made by director and producer John Hughes. With an accent on character unusual for the pictures pitched to the adolescent audience, Hughes' films included Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986).
While often coarse and vulgar, the teen films were undeniably popular and gave the genre much vitality while connecting it to a large and devoted audience. As a whole, though, the genre was extremely healthy and included a large number of well-supported productions. Its outstanding popularity was especially striking in 1981 and 1988, when almost every film in the top ten was a comedy vehicle. In 1981 the seven comedies out of the top ten were Stir Crazy, 9 to 5, Stripes, Any Which Way You Can, Arthur, The Cannonball Run, and Four Seasons. In 1988, the eight comedies among the top ten were Who Framed Roger Rabbit; Coming to America; Good Morning, Vietnam; "Crocodile" Dundee II; Big; Three Men and a Baby; Moonstruck; and Beetlejuice.
The continuing appeal of comedies argues strongly for the presence of genre as an institutionally stabilizing factor and for certain base-level audience desires and motivations relative to the movies, motives that generalize beyond the Zeitgeist of a political-social period. With regard to comedy, these motives, in the eighties as in other periods, lay in viewers' seeking enjoyment from light-spirited diversions. The reaffirmation of a viewer's sense of joy and well-being is among the most gratifying and important appeals that the movies possess. This, in fact, is one of the core demands the public makes upon the medium. The industry has always known this and been responsive to it, and it has prospered by generating product to meet the demand. This successful confluence of production and viewer gratification has helped the studios to predict and rationalize their production cycles and has helped sustain the ongoing relationship of the movies with their public. Thus, comedy remained one of the most successful of eighties genres and one of the most important for the industry.
Horror also proved to be one of the decade's most important genres, measured in terms of popularity as well as social impact. The decade opened with a huge spike in production (chart 7.1), from thirty-five pictures produced in 1979 to seventy in 1980 and ninety-three in 1981. In 1980-81, top-renting horror films included Dressed to Kill, Friday the 13th, The Shining, The Fog, Prom Night, Graduation Day, Halloween II, and Maniac. This spike in the cycle marked the onset of some notoriously violent pictures and a general degradation of the genre in which horror equated with graphic bloodletting.
The laws of the market quickly asserted themselves. The production boom resulted in a glut of films that could not be distributed to available outlets, precipating a sharp downturn in horror picture starts in 1982 and a 50 percent falloff in rentals by 1983.9 The genre spiked again in 1986-87, hitting a peak of 105 pictures in 1987. At mid-decade, the video market was thriving, and many of these pictures were low-budget, throwaway entries aimed at this ancillary. In 1986, for example, one-third of horror films were straight-to-video releases.10
The horror genre was responsible for the decade's most gut-wrenching, stomach-churning violence in pictures that amounted to little more than primers on how to slaughter people. In this regard, the genre lost the finely detailed psychological and atmospheric focus of its artistic peak in the thirties and forties in the productions of Universal Pictures and the Val Lewton films at RKO. Contemporary films like Schizoid (1980), Maniac Terror Train He Knows You're Alone
(1981), and Driller Killer (1979) ignited controversy protest for their portraits of slaughter and their sexual politics. In this way, the horror genre helped instigate some of the bitterest of the decade's culture wars focusing on the movies. In the next chapter, I examine these conflicts and the issues animating them.
For a few filmmakers, the genre furnished material for serious and ambitious work. Of only two films that Stanley Kubrick made during the decade, one—The Shining (1980)—fell in this genre and was based on a Stephen King novel. While the picture was generally disliked by King fans, Kubrick concentrated on the psychological effects wrought upon a family by the evil and haunted estate of which they are caretakers. The father (Jack Nicholson) undergoes a spectacular mental collapse that leads him to a murderous frenzy directed at his wife and child. While these plot mechanics are in themselves unremarkable, Kubrick gives them vitality through the impressive visual treatment that he accords the hotel. Filming its vast spaces and long corridors with wide-angle lenses and a prowling Steadicam, Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott imbue the estate with a sinister, lurking presence that, in time assumes tangible form in the various ghosts that materialize to torment the family.
Like all of his pictures, The Shining examines the ways that people cede control of their lives to the forces and structures that surround them. Whereas other of his pictures have presented the dilemma in terms of technology (2001: A Space Odyssey), military and political chains of command (Paths of Glory , Dr. Strangelove ), or class-bound social mores (Barry Lyndon ), The Shining invests its mise-enscène in a statement about the power of environment and locale over personality, in this case the environment and locale being construed in terms of the evil and supernatural that are normative for the genre. For popular viewers, though, Kubrick invested the film with too much ambiguity for an era that equated horror with spectacles of slaughter. The Shining did not find a large audience, but as an exercise in visual design it is an impressive work.
Another unusual picture, Wolfen (1981), is one of the decade's most ambitious horror films. Directed by Michael Wadleigh, who resurfaced after more than a decade of obscurity since he directed Woodstock (1970), Wolfen uses the trappings of horror for mystical and metaphoric ends. A pack of wolflike creatures is terrorizing New York City, attacking a wealthy businessman and prowling Wall Street as well as killing derelicts in the South Bronx. Outfitted with the latest in high-tech weaponry and surveillance equipment, the corporate state sees only political terrorists, a group called Götterdämmerung that uses a wolP's head as its emblem. But a city detective (Albert Finney) learns the truth. The wolfen are spirits from ancient Native American lore come to make war on capitalism, whose predatory ways and despoliation of the environment have invited a counter-response from these ancient predators. The film ends with the wolfen inflicting a spectacular assault on Wall Street and then vanishing back into the city. The film's ecological values and its veneration for the spirituality of cultural outsiders (the Native Americans) give it a distinctly sixties ambience and show that horror can serve quite effectively as a vehicle of social and political criticism. Furthermore, the visual design of Wolfen features outstanding Steadicam work used in sequences showing, by means of infrared images, the wolfen's perspective as they run and stalk their victims. The moving camerawork in these sequences is as exhilarating and hypnotic as that in The Shining.
While Kubrick and Wadleigh had made unusual forays into the genre, David Cronenberg emerged as its most outstanding serious filmmaker. After a series of low-budget pictures—Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983)—Cronenberg directed three haunting films that invest their horrors with a strong and detailed psychological foundation. The Dead Zone (1983) remains among the best film treatments of a Stephen King novel. Following a traffic accident, a man (Christopher Walken) develops pre-monitory powers, able to see a person's fate by touching the person or an article of his or her clothing. The gift, though, becomes a curse. Walken inhabits a dead zone because he sees the boundaries that frame life and death, and this intensifies his feelings of alienation and melancholy. Furthermore, it precipitates an acute moral and spiritual crisis. He meets a politician (Martin Sheen) who, his gift shows him, is a modern Hitler who will plunge the world into nuclear destruction. Knowing what he does, is he then justified in murdering the politician? Throughout the picture, Cronenberg maintains an intensely melancholy tone, avoiding bloody effects and keeping the focus a resolutely psychological one as he probes mysteries of life, death, and destiny.
The Fly (1986) is one of those rare cases in which the remake surpasses the original film. Cronenberg reworked the 1958 picture of the same title about a man whose scientific experiment goes awry and splices his genes with that of a common housefly. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) mutates into Brundlefly before the horrified eyes of his girlfriend (Geena Davis). Cronenberg presents the mutation as a powerful metaphor for debilitating diseases like cancer and AIDS that deform their victims with exquisite bodily tortures, and the scene that causes audiences to squirm with the greatest discomfort is also the most moving. His body an oozing mass of tissue that is literally falling apart, Seth turns to his girlfriend in despair, and she embraces him in a powerful statement that her love for him transcends his bodily manifestation. It's a brilliant scene that subjects the audience to a disturbingly ambivalent experience and, in this, shows that real horror, intelligently used, has a spiritual dimension and purpose that few films ever realize.
Dead Ringers (1988) is an ultra-creepy film about twin gynecologists (Jeremy Irons in tour-de-force performances) who share lives, living quarters, patients, and lovers. Cronenberg's focus here is almost entirely suggestive and psychological, with little overt horror. Characteristically, he explores themes of bodily mutilation and mental disintegration, as the doctors' minds and personalities warp in ever more demented and evil directions.
In these three films, Cronenberg eschewed the sadism of the genre to focus on the human terms of horror, and there he found the universal experiences of disease, decay, death, psychological loss, and spiritual suffering. In doing so, his work reconnected the genre with the authentic human tragedies from which the art and aesthetic of horror arise.
Several other front rank directors dabbled in horror during the decade. In Cat People (1982), Paul Schrader remade the 1942 Val Lewton classic about a strange young woman with a family curse that causes her to transform into a predatory cat when she is angered or sexually aroused. Lewton's film, like all of his outstanding horror pictures at RKO, emphasized mystery, implication, and atmosphere. By contrast, Schrader played up sex and explicit violence, attributes that overly literalized the ambiguities and narrative mystery of Lewton's original production. Schrader's Cat People was memorable mainly because of the outstanding production design by Ferdinando Scarfiotti, particularly in the film's prelude, which conjures the African plains as if in a fevered dream.
Though he would be known mainly for high-concept action films like Top Gun (1986), Tony Scott essayed a vampire movie in The Hunger (1983). Catherine Deneuve plays the vampire, with David Bowie as her companion, though Scott's emphasis was on visual design, not horror, and in his elegant images he crossed high fashion with punk. Several other directors perceived the affinities between punk culture and vampire lore: Joel Schumacher in The Lost Boys (1987) and Kathryn Bigelow in Near Dark (1987).
Alan Parker and John Schlesinger made brief forays into demonism and Satan worship in Angel Heart (1987) and The Believers (1987). In the former, Mickey Rourke is Harry Angel, a private eye hired by a mysterious Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) on a missing person case. Cyphre turns out to be the devil, and the story is really about Angel's damnation. While the tale is predictable, Parker's strongly imaged film is among the more striking examples of American Gothic. In The Believers, a widower (Martin Sheen) and his son run afoul of a Manhattan religous cult that practices child sacrifice. Schlesinger crafts a disturbing film, but it is cold and brutal, showing the violent death in the opening scene of Sheen's wife and, at the end, of his child. Horror in the eighties was particularly unsparing of its viewers.
Joseph Ruben's The Stepfather (1986) was an outstanding horror film, as was John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986, released in 1990). Ruben's film zeroed in on the family and, like much contemporary horror, showed it as a breeding ground for monsters. A seemingly virtuous, clean-living man (Terry O'Quinn), who wants the perfect family, turns out to be a psychopath with a penchant for slaughtering wife and children when they fail to live up to his ideal of perfection. Ruben's taut direction makes this a highly suspenseful picture that critiques the family politics of the political Right by showing the thin line between virtue and aberrant repression.
McNaughton's film is among the most disturbing pictures ever made. With a dispassionate tone and with graphic but controlled violence, it shows and studies the horrendous cruelties of Henry (Michael Rooker), a human monster modeled on Texas serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who perpetrates a number of torture murders without feeling or remorse. Henry's friend Otis becomes a partner in crime, and Otis is even more disturbing and creepy than Henry, pursuing behaviors—incest, necrophilia—that Henry finds objectionable. Otis's sister is the one character who offers Henry some tenderness and emotional connection, yet these prove to be too disturbing for him. In the final scene he murders her, leaves her dismembered body in a trunk by the roadside, and wanders off, deeper into America, to pursue the killings that alone give his life meaning.
McNaughton avoids the moralizing apparatus that usually accrues to serial killer films—subplots showing police and FBI hunting the killer, victims grieving over their shattered lives, and the conventional narrative suspense that intercutting among this material typically generates. Instead, he makes the viewer dwell exclusively in the emotionally barren mental landscape of Henry, in his isolation and alienation. This is a terrifying place. McNaughton thus invites his viewers to confront the human monster at close range, with no answers provided, no absolution offered, and no release.
Cronenberg's work, Wolfen, The Shining, The Stepfather, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer represent the high achievements of horror in the eighties, with the genre being used in a serious way by ambitious filmmakers. Outside these efforts, much of the sheer popular appeal of horror could be found in the numerous series and production cycles that highlighted favorite characters or the work of name directors and authors. Joe Dante's The Howling (1980), an uncommonly smart witty werewolf movie with a script by John Sayles, revived interest in lycanthropes and touched off a minor run of werewolf pictures. John Landis's An American Werewolf in London (1981) mixed black humor and graphic gore, while Teen Wolf (1985) played werewolves for laughs and Silver Bullet (1985) took them more seriously. Subsequent Howling movies—the series ran to seven installments and into the midnineties—failed to recapture the original's sly humor. Unlike other horror franchises, however, the Howling movies happily went in totally unexpected directions, with story settings that included Transylvania and monsters that included Australian marsupial werewolves carrying baby critters in a pouch.
Another large cycle of films clustered about the fiction of author Stephen King: Christine (1982), Cujo (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), Children of the Corn (1984), and Pet Sematary (1989). Excepting The Dead Zone, this was an undistinguished group of films that nevertheless demonstrated the cachet of King among fans of the genre. One of the worst horror films of the decade was actually directed by King: Maximum Overdrive (1986), about trucks that come to life and terrorize patrons at a roadside diner.
The combination of graphic gore and humor in An American Werewolf in London proved to be trendsetting. Horror in the eighties often placed ultraviolence and mutilation in a cartoonish context and played them for laughs. Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1982) and Evil Dead II (1987) and Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985) epitomized these Grand Guignol comedies. Without the ultraviolence, though, horror-comedy could be big box office. Blending these genres to great effect were Ghostrusters (1984), Gremlins and Beetlejuice (1988), with The Witches of Eastwick (1987) as a relatively less successful example.
While the diversity of these productions shows that horror was a variegated genre, its greatest impact as a pop-cultural phenomenon lay in two extraordinarily popular franchise series, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. These films introduced a pair of serial killers who became wildly popular among teenage fans of the genre. Friday the 13th (1980), directed by Sean Cunningham, introduced Camp Crystal Lake as the stalking ground of a gruesome killer preying on vacationing teenagers. In the film's twist ending the killer turns out to be a woman (Betsy Palmer) angry over the drowning death of her son, Jason, twenty years before. Blaming camp counselors for his death, she murders out of vengeance. Dozens more teens are butchered in Friday the 13th, 2 (1981), and Jason Voorhees emerged as the relentless, seemingly indestructable killer whose persona became synonymous with the series. Friday the 13th: The Part Final Chapter (1984) was no such thing, and the next episode, Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning (1985) introduced a copycat killer to keep the franchise alive. Jason returned in Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) and Part VII: The New Blood (1988), while in VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989), the locale shifted from Crystal Lake to a cruise ship.
The Friday series was a remorseless presentation of serial killing, made especially disturbing by the almost mystical impenetrability of Jason, his huge, masked presence looming from the shadows and carrying dull-bladed implements of butchery. His impenetrability was emblemized, famously, in the hockey mask that he wore and that came to serve as his face, hard, featureless, inhuman. Like other prominent serial killers in franchise series—Michael Myers in the Halloween films and "Leatherface" in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre pictures—the mask served to obliterate his humanity and to portray him as a being that eludes understanding or categorization.
While Jason's undifferentiated personality makes him the lumpenproletariat of serial killers, Freddy Kreuger established an elegant, witty, even urbane and charming persona in the Elm Street films: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988, directed by Renny Harlin, who went on to establish a solid, commercially successful career outside the genre), and A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child (1989). The first in the series, directed by Wes Craven, introduced Freddy as a child molester who had been burned alive by outraged parents but whose evil was too powerful for death to hold him in its grip. Freddy returns here and throughout the series, entering the dreams of the Elm Street children to torture them psychologically and then kill them in macabre ways. This is his way of getting revenge on those who burned him.
With some brilliance, Craven introduced dreamscapes as the surreal staging grounds for Freddy's predation, and this enabled the series to play, in elaborate and imaginative ways, with special effects and the magic time-space warp and antirational logic of the dream world. This surrealism is most marked in Dream Warriors, co-written by Craven. This mind-bending surrealism, plus the performance of Robert Englund as Freddy, mugging, joking, and winking at the audience as he slaughters people, gave the series a degree of self-consciousness. By Dream Warriors, the series was elaborating its own formal rules of play and quoting these. The humor and self-consciousness helped give Freddy a degree of popularity among teen viewers that far surpassed that of his main competitors, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers.
Myers stalked through the Halloween series, which elaborated a mythology surrounding this character, who had been introduced as the personification of evil in John Carpenter's original film (1978). Halloween II (1981) resumes the action of its predecessor on the same evening that the original story concluded. Michael continues to stalk Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), an intended victim who had eluded him, while being pursued in turn by his nemesis Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance). Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983) was an oddity in that it dropped the storyline of Myers-Laurie-Loomis and focused instead on a crazed toymaker intent on massacring children with booby-trapped Halloween toys. After this misfire, which fans of the series did not support, the francise resumed its familiar format with Loomis chasing Myers in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) and Halloween 5 (1989). Carpenter had long since disassociated himself from the series, and as the long hiatus between parts 2 and 4 (which focus on Michael Myers) demonstrates, the series never attained the popularity and fan following that Jason and Freddy Kreuger were inspiring.
The remaining archetypal masked killer in this eighties pantheon was "Leatherface," a hulking, silent butcher with a chain saw, part of a family of cannibals introduced in Tobe Hooper's classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Given the striking popularity of the decade's other masked killers, Leatherface made an inevitable comeback in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). Directed again by Hooper, this installment substituted broad, slapstick comedy for the claustrophobic terror of the original film, and the comic and horror elements failed to integrate with one another. The third entry in the series, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1989), followed the story line of the original film closely, but its gore was reduced by prerelease cuts that damaged its narrative integrity. After his memorable and terrifying debut in the 1974 film, Leatherface never again found a suitable vehicle to showcase his demented talents and thus remained a third-string star in the decade's horror pantheon.
Hooper, too, had a fitful career after his 1974 classic. His feature films found little commercial success—The Funhouse (1981), about a group of teens spending the night in a deserted carnival; Lifeforce (1985), a weird picture about outer-space vampires; and Invaders from Mars (1986), a critically reviled remake of the fifties science fiction classic. Hooper also directed for television, most notably "Freddy's Nightmares" (1988), a series inspired by the Elm Street films, and "Tales from the Crypt," an anthology horror series.
Hooper's biggest film of the decade, both in terms of its budget and its popular success, was also a nagging reminder that his career had stalled. Poltergeist (1982) was a solid hit about a family, the Freelings, whose suburban existence is undermined by vengeful ghosts who kidnap their little girl. The picture was produced by Steven Spielberg, and rumors circulated upon its release that Spielberg had taken control of the picture's direction and editing. The film certainly bears many Spielberg hallmarks, from the surburban family milieu and special effects to the reassuring ending. Whatever the truth to these rumors, the film's Spielberg association overshadowed Hooper's role as director in its critical reception. Hooper did continue to work for Spielberg, directing a 1985 episode of Spielberg's TV series "Amazing Stories," but unfortunately his biggest hit of the decade was a picture widely regarded as not his own.
Accentuating the series nature of eighties horror, Poltergeist generated two follow-up pictures, Poltergeist II (1986) and III (1988). More lasting than the impact of the series, though, was the folklore about a curse that sprang up following the deaths of two young acresses who had played members of the Freeling family. Dominique Dunne (who played Dana Freeling) was murdered by an estranged lover during release of the first picture, and before release of the third film, Heather O'Rourke (who played Carol Ann Freeling) died unexpectedly following a surgical procedure. These two events stimulated much discussion of a Poltergeist curse.
Horror in the 1980s, then, was big box office, and it spawned several trendsetting series that added new, archetypal monsters to the genre's pantheon. Horror, though, was not a genre in which many serious filmmakers were content to work. Cronenberg, Wadleigh, Kubrick, Ruben, and McNaughton were visitors to the genre who did not stay long. Craven was highly ambivalent about his own success. He felt it limited his ability to work simply as a filmmaker, unconfined by the constraints of a genre in which he believed he had become imprisoned. Of the Hollywood genres, horror has always enjoyed a somewhat debased prestige. In the eighties, its mutation into ultraviolence enhanced this status and generally kept serious filmmakers away from its terrain.
Although the classical Hollywood musical is passé, the genre continued in the 1980s, in productions that showed clearly the crises that beset the form. By mutating for the times, the musical retained some of its old vitality, though these changes robbed the genre of its aesthetic authenticity. The genre's main problem was that it had outlived the cinematic conditions that had given it life and greatness. More than other genres, the musical was an integral part of old Hollywood. The musical was vitally connected with the era when performers, musicians, choreographers, arrangers, and filmmakers like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Vincente Minnelli, Roger Edens, and Hermes Pan were under long-term studio contract and worked full-time turning out a series of uniquely stylized pictures. Musicals flourished because the studios had the extensive rosters of in-house talent requisite for the form.
Producer Arthur Freed at MGM, for example, headed a production unit responsible for that studio's classic productions, including The Wizard of Oz (1939), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and AN American in Paris (1951). The Band Wagon (1953), another Freed production, had its musical origins in the Howard Dietz-Arthur Schwartz song catalog and its narrative origins in the personal experiences of its key production personnel, including Fred Astaire and scriptwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green. In fashioning the story, all contributed anecdotes drawn from their professional lives. The picture's self-conscious integration of narrative and music owes much to the ensemble work of everyone involved, including also the associate producer Roger Edens, director Vincente Minnelli, choreographer Michael Kidd, and musical designer Oliver Smith.11 This kind of group effort depended on secure, long-term working relationships in which a director like Vincente Minnelli and a performer like Astaire would have the opportunity to explore and elaborate a variety of visual and musical styles over the course of many films and the production staff to support these efforts. It is precisely this condition that was lacking in the transient, piecework relationships that prevailed in 1980s filmmaking. Thus, the musical was affected more deeply than other film genres.
Furthermore, changing audience tastes helped erode the classic movie musical. More than other genres, the musical offered filmmakers opportunities to take cinema in markedly antirealistic and antinarrative directions. During the musical numbers, films opened onto dimensions of total self-consciousness and exquisite stylization. The hypersaturated colors of the "Broadway Melody" number in Singin' in the Rain, the abstract set design of "The Girl Hunt" ballet from The Band Wagon, or the elaborate homages to impressionist painting in the concluding ballet of AN American in Paris emphasize artifice and the musical and visual properties of the design so emphatically as to overwhelm narrative and character as the normative focal points of popular film.
This has proven to be problematic for contemporary audiences in several ways. Eighties viewers delighted in artifice and style, but they did so primarily through other genres, like science fiction, where the design elements were subordinated more thoroughly to narrative. The rejection of narrative inherent in every classical musical, where the story line is minimal and functions to serve the production numbers, is a design that contemporary moviegoers found troublesome, if not disturbing. For elaborate exercises in design and style, they turned to the extended effects sequences of action and science fiction films. These films, though, were more plot-driven than the classical musicals, and their effects sequences did not puncture narrative as the musical had done. Contemporary audiences were relatively unforgiving of the narrative transgressions committed by the musical.
Furthermore, the genres emotional tone helped to seal its doom. Its buoyant optimism and frothy sentimentality struck many contemporary viewers as weirdly naive and difficult to relate to. The idea that a man might be so overcome with happiness at the thought of his beloved that he would sing and dance in the rain seemed preposterous. In contrast with the zest for life displayed by the musical, contemporary viewers found a darker and more cynical outlook in film to be a truer reflection of the world they inhabited. In this sense, serial killers replaced the singing, dancing lovers that the musical offered. The classic Hollywood productions had come to seem disconnected from a more contemporary time and place.
But the musical did not die or vanish. Musicals remained in active production throughout the decade, though they mutated in response to the aforementioned changes in industry and audience. Production was spotty and hardly prolific. Moreover, there were no musical stars, no performers whose star persona was bound to the genre. Certainly there were stars in the decades musicals, and these included Dolly Parton (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas ), Prince (Purple Rain ), John Travolta (Staying Alive ), Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing ), Neil Diamond (The Jazz Singer ) and Olivia Newton-John (Xanadu ). But Parton, Diamond, Prince, and Newton-John had established their star credentials in the recorded-music industry and transferred these to cinema. Gene Kelly did appear in a small role in Xanadu, but his presence here was ghostly, a reminder of times past and now lost. There has been no successor to his generation of musical film stars, and eighties productions had to rely on talent developed in other media besides cinema. There is no star of eighties musicals whose song and dance talents were tied specifically to the movies and were a function of cinema. La Bamba (1987) Purple Rain (1984) illustrate the musical talents of the real-life concert performers Ritchie Valens and Prince. And Robert Altman's Popeye (1980), with its cast of nonmusical performers (Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall) and intentionally sloppy production numbers, showed some contempt for the talent and its showcasing that the genre traditionally exemplified.
The top-earning musicals were either high-concept films, pictures built around popular (nonmusical) stars or singers, or based on a hit stage play or previous popular film. These sources are very different from the genre's earlier prediliction for growing a film out of a renowned composer's song catalog (e.g., Gershwin and An American in Paris, Irving Berlin and Easter Parade , Dietz-Schwartz and The Band Wagon). The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) was based on a Broadway hit and did feature the singing talents of Dolly Parton, but it also relied upon the star charisma of nonmusical Burt Reynolds and even built a production number around character actor Charles Duming. The results were uneven at best. Also based on a Broadway hit, Annie (1982) toplined dramatic actor Albert Finney and television star Carol Burnett and, strangely enough, was directed by John Huston, a gifted filmmaker but one who never possessed the light and nimble touch of Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen, established masters of the genre. Other prominent adaptations of stage productions included A Chorus Line (1985) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986). These latter pictures were given a strong marketing push but generated weak box office, in the $10—13 million range.
A second group of musicals was arguably more cinematic, but it took the genre in a new and bogus stylistic direction. This group was composed of the high-concept films, including Flashdance (1983), Staying Alive (1983) Footloose (1984), Purple Rain, and Dirty Dancing (1987). Staying Alive was a sequel to the popular Saturday Night Fever (1977). Again starring John Travolta, whose disco character is now trying to forge a career as a Broadway dancer, the picture was directed, improbably, by Sylvester Stallone, whose film work is more noted for muscles and violence. Under his aegis, Travolta muscled up, took off his shirt, and flexed his way through an outlandish production number, "Satan's Alley," designed as a musical trip through hell. Indeed, this is where it took the genre. Purple Rain was built around the persona of rock performer Prince, while Flashdance, Footloose, and Dirty Dancing all featured catchy narrative premises: a woman steel welder who's also a sexy dancer, a sexy male dancer who lands in a small, repressive town, and a spoiled girl vacationing in the Catskills who learns about life from a sensual working-class performer.
These pictures collectively debased the filming of dance. Montage editing and a driving musical beat hyped the pace and energy level of the musical sequences, and while this made them cinematic, it also undermined the authenticity of the musical performances. Flashdance, in particular, is an aggressively edited film in which a viewer's sense of Jennifer Beals's musical talents is more a function of cinematography and editing and less a function of the performers own movements. (Actually, a real dancer doubled for Beals in these sequences, but her performance was still overwhelmed by the editing.) In this regard, the montage style of musical presentation in the high-concept films violated the aesthetic premise that informed the work of the genre's great talents. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly insisted that their dance numbers be filmed using longer takes and a fluid camera to follow their movements, with minimal editing. Camera positions were full-figure framings to show the dancer's entire body and to respect the integrity of the choreography and its execution by the performer. By contrast, the use of extreme close-ups of face, hands, arms, and feet, in Flashdance and others, is a strategy to create the impression of a dance performance, conveyed through the manipulations of cinema, rather than the presentation of an actual performance. Thus, while this style is exciting and cinematic, it is a fradulent way of rendering the dancer's art. But the montage aesthetic was a response to the genre's crisis, namely, the dearth of cinema-specific musical talent, and was perhaps an effort to disguise that lack.
This problem notwithstanding, Flashdance was a seminal film of the 1980s. It mixed music with quick editing to perfect one of the decade's first rock video movies. In these terms, it was tremendously influential and tremendously lucrative for Paramount, a phenomenon that I discussed in chapter 3. In the wake of Flashdance, the cross-marketing of movies and popular music formats (album, singles, rock videos) became an essential prop of eighties movie distribution. Thus, though the genre was far from its glory days and was bereft of genre-specific talent, at their most influential the movie musicals showed the studios where the decade's pot of gold lay and how to reach into it. Eighties musicals, then, will be remembered for their marketing innovations, not their art.
The Western was the most miserably performing genre of the decade. While the genre's box office had fallen in the 1970s, it still saw fairly robust production and some outstanding achievements (McCabe and Mrs. Miller , Ulzana's Raid , Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid ). In the 1980s, though, the production of Western features fell dramatically, and the genre saw few outstanding films that are likely to have enduring value. When the decade began, studio executives already considered the genre to be a risky venture in which to place production capital, and, as if to confirm this perception, four prominent Westerns were visible failures in 1980. These films were widely regarded by the industry as tests of the genre's viability, and their fate was interpreted as evidence of an exhausted market.
The four films in question were Bronco Billy, The Long Riders, Tom Horn, and Heaven's Gate. The latter picture has already been discussed in chapter 1. Partly because of the box-office credentials of actor-director Clint Eastwood, Warner Bros. had positioned Bronco Billy as a major, hoped-for summer hit. In retrospect, however, it is easy to see that the studio's hopes were unrealistic, regardless of the picture s status as a Western (even that was problematic, as the picture is set in the modern era). Eastwood's film is a very slight confection, delicate in spirit and whimsical in its charms. None of these attributes were likely to ignite the box office. Eastwood plays a failed shoe salesman who turns to promoting a Wild West show peopled by oddballs and eccentrics and pitched to wholesome family entertainment and all the "little pards" who idolize cowboys.
In this regard, Eastwood was returning, in a historical and cultural sense, to the genre s broadest basis of support among a juvenile audience. The only problem was that this juvenile audience, which had thrived on Â Westerns and TV shows from the 1930s through the early 1960s, had by the 1980s grown tired of Westerns and moved on to space adventures with their more exotic weaponry and snappier pace. Thus, Bronco Billy was a film curiously out of time and without a real audience to which it could connect, a problem compounded by the film's genre-bending proclivities. It blends the Western with the screwball comedy, pairing Billy (Eastwood) with a ditzy heiress on the run (Sondra Locke) in the manner of a Frank Capra Depression-era comedy. Furthermore, Eastwood's role, and the laid-back, genial spirit of the film, were too far removed from the hard, violent action that the popular audience wanted and expected of an Eastwood picture. Despite a last-minute change of advertising, Bronco Billy generated a lackluster $14 million in rentals, dashing Warner Bros.' hope that it would be a major summer release.
Walter Hill's The Long Riders is among the few distinguished Westerns of the decade, but shows the characteristics of his work, problems that have limited the commercial impact of his career and that certainly constrained the performance of this film. Hill was primarily a stylist and an extraordinary choreographer of physical action. He tended to eschew the exploration of character and emotion, preferring instead a kind of mythic abstractness for his characters (seen most intensively in The Driver  and The Warriors ). As a result, his pictures are good looking and impressively staged but dramatically thin, a problem that besets The Long Riders. Hill the stylist is very much on display here. The most memorable aspect of the picture is its casting. Hill chose real-life brothers to play the outlaw siblings who compose the Jesse James-Cole Younger gang: David, Keith, and Robert Carradine as Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger; Stacy and James Keach as Frank and Jesse James; Dennis and Randy Quaid as Ed and Clell Miller; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest as Charlie and Bob Ford. In addition to this remarkable casting, Hill's stylization finds full flourish in his staging of the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota, raid in which the gang was decimated. Hill uses slow motion and squibs to capture the horror of this bloody massacre and innovates by using sound to herald in slowed time the approach of screaming bullets before they strike their hapless victims. Despite this bravura set piece and Hill's evident passion for the rituals of the genre, audiences remained uninterested in the picture. It returned only $6 million in rentals that year for Paramount.
Performing even more dismally, with $4 million in rentals, was Steve McQueen's Tom Horn. Of the Westerns that failed commercially in 1980, Tom Horn suffered the unkindest fate. Its release was virtually straight to video, where it has remained in limbo ever since. Relatively unknown to viewers, it is one of the most beautifully autumnal Westerns of recent decades and is the genre's finest achievement of the eighties. This said, however, the reasons for its present obscurity are evident. It has an art house simplicity and purity of design and an absolutely sad and depressing ending that grants the viewer no emotional respite or sense of victory. An "end of the West" picture, it relates the tale of Horn's final years, when he drifted into Wyoming territory and agreed to work for the region's big cattle ranchers ridding the ranges of rustlers. Horn is framed for a murder he never committed and hung, and the film moves relentlessly toward this downbeat conclusion (one the distributor and most viewers plainly would not like). Steve McQueen produced the picture, and it was a very personal project for him, an evident labor of love, despite his physical illness, which is plainly manifest before the camera. (He completed only one more film, The Hunter , before dying of cancer.) His performance is masterfully controlled, at once violent and delicate, and it conveys a depth of feeling for the West that is both moving and beautiful and absolutely essential to a great Western. To showcase this performance, the film offers a poetic presentation of the frontier, plains, and mountains as the basis of Horn's life and ethic of individual freedom. With superb widescreen cinematography by John Alonzo, the picture needs to be seen on the large screen and translates poorly to television and home video. Thus, it suffered a doubly unkind fate. Its membership in a declining genre hurt its reception, and its relegation to home video doom damaged its lovely and calculated visual design. Given its unkind fate, Tom Horn is one of the decade's film casualties.
The other films that approached the genre seriously were mostly low-key, and often low-budget, productions. Independent filmmaker Robert Young's The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1981) was a restrained and documentary-like account of a famous Texas manhunt during which a young Mexican, Cortez (Edward James Olmos), who has accidently killed a sheriff, eludes a huge posse for weeks. A production of public television's American Playhouse, the film saw limited theatrical distribution. Mellow and affectionate in its depiction of the end of the West, Phillip Borsos's The Gray Fox (1982) starred veteran character actor Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, a notorious stagecoach robber who is jailed for thirty years, after which he emerges into a new, modern century and promptly turns his talents to robbing trains. Australian director Fred Schepisi's Barbarosa (1982) examined the birth of myth and legend through the life and adventures of the titular character (played by Willie Nelson), a wandering outlaw on the Texas-Mexico border. Nelson is marvelous in the role, and Schepisi spins the film like a shaggy-dog story, taking the character past the point of death and into the realm of folklore.
A sure sign of the genre's faltering appeal was the abundance of comical and juvenile Westerns. The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) resurrected the popular children's hero from radio and television but seemed unable to deal with the character except as a campy figure, lacking the sincerity of his radio and television incarnations, which compelled belief in his virtuous nature. Zorro, another popular character of Western lore, became a figure of camp in Zorro the Gay Blade (1981). Starring George Hamilton (who also produced), it was intended as a follow-up to Hamilton's successful send-up of Dracula movies, Love at First Bite (1979), but it lacked that picture's charm. Paul Bartel's Lust in the Dust (1985) parodied hunt-for-gold Westerns and starred Divine, the transvestite actor associated with John Waters's films. Singing cowboy movies got an affectionate send-up in Rustler's Rhapsody (1985), starring Tom Berenger, and even country singers Roy Clark and Mel Tillis found themselves in the midst of a comic Western in Uphill All the Way (1986).
The best of the comic Westerns was John Landis's Three Amigos! (1986), starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short as unemployed singing-cowboy movie actors. They go to Mexico for a command performance but instead become involved in an adventure helping a village get rid of its bandit leader. The story inevitably references such Americans-in-Mexico classics as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Augmenting the Wild Bunch connection, Alphonso Arau, a prominent villain in that film, played the chief baddie here.
Two prominent Westerns pitched to juvenile audiences were Silverado(1986) and Young Guns (1988). The first, directed by Lawrence Kasdan, was a big-budget effort to revive the rollicking spirit of the old series Westerns, much as Kasdan had done with the old movie serials in his script for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Four adventurers (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover) team up to rid a town of a corrupt sheriff. The pacing that Kasdan sets is so brisk and fast as to be constraining. Whenever the action begins to slow or a character to grow reflective, the film cuts nervously to some new scene or plot development. The result is a lively but superficial film. Young Guns, dubbed at the time the first "Brat Pack" Western, starred Emilio Estevez as Billy the Kid and Lou Diamond Phillips, Kiefer Sutherland, Dermot Mulroney, and Charlie Sheen as members of his outlaw gang. Each was a popular star who had made his name in adolescent-themed productions. Shot and edited with MTV rhythms and featuring a rock music score, the picture undeniably reinvigorated the genre for younger viewers, even if its noise and preening adolescence seemed vulgar to older viewers.
Amid these parodies and juvenilia, Clint Eastwoods Pale Rider, released at mid-decade, was clearly the most ambitious effort to work honorably in the genre and take seriously its mythic underpinnings. Furthermore, because it was Eastwood's first real period Western since 1976s The Outlaw Josey Wales, the picture's release generated much anticipation. Unfortunately, Pale Rider was disappointingly derivative. Perhaps seeking to give his picture a classical structure, Eastwood modeled the film upon George Stevens's Shane (1953), with Eastwood's mysterious gunman as the Shane figure who saves a mining community from the rapacious businessman who wants to control it. Stevens's film was highly self-conscious in its exploration of the genre's mythology. His treatment had been exhaustive and has been criticized (though not by this author) for being too elaborate and deliberate in its deployment of the genre's symbolism. Given this situation, Eastwood's reworking of the material did not extend it or invest it with greater resonance. Thus, Pale Rider seemed decidedly unoriginal, a surprising fate considering Eastwoods otherwise visionary use of the genre (High Plains Drifter , The Outlaw josey Wales, and Unforgiven ). If even Eastwood faltered in the eighties in his efforts to make a Western, what future did the genre have?
With its aesthetic possibilities seemingly dimmed, the genre failed to make much of an effect at the nation's box office. The Legend of the Lone Ranger was a commercial failure in 1981, earning a paltry $7 million in rentals. Two years later, The Gray Fox fell short of $2 million in rentals, and The Man from Snowy River's $9 million rentals were earned in 1982 by an Australian film that performed fairly well (for an import) in U.S. distribution. Eastwood's Pale Rider ($21 million in rentals) generated the genre's biggest box office of the decade, despite its testimony to the Western's anachronistic, bygone status. Silverado (1985, $16 million), Three Amigos! (1986, $18 million), and Young Guns (1988, $19 million) failed to create much excitement.
The Western had seemingly lost its cultural force. While good Westerns would continue to be made (TV's "Lonesome Dove," Eastwood's subsequent Unforgiven), the prolific production rate that characterized the genre in earlier times was over. The eighties were a terrible decade for fans of the genre.
The salient social and cultural issues of the 1980s surfaced in films outside the familiar frameworks afforded by genre. Cycles of film coalesced about diverse issues, including the Midwest farm crisis that triggered a rash of small-farm foreclosures (Places in the Heart , Country  The River ); international terrorism (Nighthawks , The Little Drummer Girl , Half Moon Street , Die Hard ); U.S.-USSR espionage and cultural relations (Moscow on the Hudson , Spies Like Us , White Nights The Falcon and the Snowman , Russkies , The Fourth Protocol  No Way Out , Little Nikita , The Package ); chasing wealth in a go-go economy (Risky Business , Trading Places Brewster's Millions , The Secret of My Success , Wall Street ); yuppie love (Key Exchange , St. Elmo's Fire  About Last Night ); the uncertain legacy of the political Left in American society (Return of the Secaucus Seven , The Big Chill , Daniel , Running on Empty ); and the social fragmentation and anomie afflicting diverse groups and breeding alienation, bitterness, and rage (River's Edge , Talk Radio , Colors ).
Throughout the 1980s, despite the economic dominance of the fantasy blockbusters and the industry's continued investment in traditional genres, a significant set of American films adopted a topical focus by engaging the issues of their day. In this way, they became part of the period's ideological ferment. Indeed, it would be more surprising had Hollywood film not responded and embodied some of the anxieties and controversies of that politically self-conscious period. Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency was presented by his campaign managers and by media analysts as a political revolution (even though his "mandate" consisted of just 29 percent of the eligible electorate's vote), as a decisive political shift in the culture that signaled a major realignment of political forces and a revision of the role and administration of government. Consistent with this perception and mission, Reagan's administration was, in its first term, an activist one, cutting taxes, curtailing social services, deregulating business, and promoting the view that less government was better government and presiding over a transfer of wealth during which the personal income of the poorest one-fifth of the population decreased by 10 percent while the income of the wealthiest one-fifth increased by 16 percent.12
Moreover, as a result of the tax cuts enacted by the Reagan administration and continued high levels of government spending, the U.S. deficit exploded, more than doubling to soar beyond $200 billion.'13 Responses by affected groups to these developments were predictably intense, heightening the political tensions of the period. To promote its policies and in its discussions of domestic and foreign issues, the administration elaborated a set of political themes that achieved prominence during the era. These included the omnipresent danger of terrorism, the Soviet Union as an evil empire engaged in relentless territorial expansion, and governmental bureaucracy as a threat to individual economic and political freedom.
Many of these themes found their way into Hollywood film, but they were often garbled in the process of transposition or even openly contested. While American film in the 1980s was responsive to the Reagan years, it was not a product of those years in any simple or reactive way. In fact, a major feature of the period's production is what I will call its ideological conglomeration. This is an important characteristic of sociopolitical expression in the American cinema, and it is motivated by the industry's practical business incentives.
Given their high production costs, American films need to attract as many viewers as they can, and the broad-based appeals they offer are often incompatible with strict ideological or political coherence. This is why the tradition of "message" filmmaking in the American industry is so minimal and toothless. To maximize its commercial (audience) base, Hollywood film operates through a process of conglomeration, mixing a variety of sometimes disparate ideological appeals into an ambiguous whole. American film foregrounds narrative and character emotions, and while those narratives may manifest on occasion a political view, more often this is a matter of metaphor and implication. To be overtly political except in the most general terms (e.g., affirming patriotism or family) is to risk loss of market share. Thus, Hollywood has mostly regarded political filmmaking as being incompatible with box-office success, except in times of exigent circumstance, such as World War II. But here is a paradox. Box-office success requires a degree of topicality. Filmmaking that is vital, vibrant, and connected with the concerns people feel in their lives offers a powerful incentive for going to the movies. In many cases, the industry resolves this paradox by designing films so that their sociopolitical dimensions are matters of implication, material forming the background of a narrative, and conglomerated values. This process is a basic mechanism for linking film to a multitextured society from which viewers and profits alike come.
Accordingly, American film production manifests numerous interesting contradictions. Gulf and Western Industries, through its subsidiary Paramount Pictures, distributed Bernardo Bertolucci's Marxist epic 1900 (1977) as well as Reds (1981), Warren Beatty's homage to American communist John Reed. Corporate capitalism was savaged (in fantasy) in Blade Runner (1982) and Robocop (1987) at the same time that it promoted its wares through numerous marketing tie-ins to popular pictures. While eighties film conformed to the underlying characteristic of ideological conglomeration, some production cycles addressed the period's topical issues in an unusually direct manner, some even adopting an explicitly partisan focus. The period's films thus manifested an interesting tension between these modes of address, making the period a significant one for the history of American social filmmaking.
Among the most striking of the period's topical film cycles were those celebrating a new cold war, those portraying the revolutions in Central and South America and the Vietnam War, and those using science fiction to imaginatively recast contemporary economic problems in darkly futurist terms.
New Cold War Films
Compared to the 1970s, the Reagan years were associated with significant changes in U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. role in global affairs. Some Hollywood films of the period participated in these changes by emulating the White House's rhetoric and geopolitical analysis. As the 1970s ended, many neoconservatives believed that the United States had lost international standing in world affairs and was a declining military power, hobbled by an excessive concern for human rights during the Carter years. If it was U.S. military power that had maintained peace since World War II (according to this view), many on the Right felt that policies of détente and human rights were now assisting Moscow's global strategic ambitions by preventing the United States from properly defending its authoritarian Third World friends.
For the political Right, U.S. military weakness led to the "loss" of Nicaragua and Iran and had emboldened the Soviets to invade Afghanistan in 1979. Moreover, the failed rescue of American hostages in Iran, and the daily taunts of their captors, seemed to reveal America as a hobbled giant, scarred by the Vietnam trauma and no longer willing or capable of using its military. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union allegedly was advancing its geopolitical interests by fomenting unrest in Central America and the Carribean basin. To correct this perceived imbalance in global military power, the Right argued for a resurgence of American military force. Robert Tucker's important Foreign Affairs article of 1980 expounded the concept of a resurgent America.14
U.S. defense spending would have to be increased as an investment in peace while social spending would be slashed. President Reagan justified these policies by citing the Soviet threat. He claimed the Soviets were conducting "the greatest military build-up in the history of man."15 Faced with this provocation, Reagan argued, the U.S. must respond with the military readiness and will to counter Soviet moves in the Third World wherever they appeared. As a result of this rhetoric and these suggested policies, the era saw an efflorescence of the traditional anticommunism of American politics. In the political culture of the period, the Soviet Union was demonized, portrayed as an outlaw nation and as the locus of evil in the modern world. President Reagan, for example, described the Soviet Union as "a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations."16 In accord with its perceptions and as the eighties began, the administration waged a new cold war against the Soviets, conducted through political discourse and, more concretely, through clandestine operations (e.g., support for anti-Marxist forces in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador).
A prominent cycle of new cold war films participated in this demonization of the Soviets. Red Dawn (1984), Rocky IV (1985), Invasion USA (1985), Top Gun (1986), The Delta Force (1986), Heartbreak Ridge Iron Eagle Eagle II (1988) and Rambo III (1988) enact ideological dramas in which Soviet depredations arouse the slumbering American giant. Many of these films are explicit agitprop. Rambo III pits Stallone's superhuman warrior against the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan and is dedicated, in the final credits, to "the people of Afghanistan." The film's imagery celebrates American strength and power. Rambo shoots Soviet helicopters out of the sky with explosive arrows. He drives a tank straight into an oncoming helicopter and survives the explosions.
Rambo is such a supremely powerful (and superhuman) warrior that he became a charged national emblem in the era's cultural discourse, a creature of mythology and symbolism embodying the resolve and strength of no single person but of an entire nation. Thus, President Reagan invoked his name and example when making threats against real Middle Eastern hostage takers. The images of Rambo living as a pacifist among Buddhist monks at the film's beginning are satirical jabs at the U.S. posture of international disengagement during the Carter years. (Another popular rescue-thehostages drama, The Delta Force, opened with the failure of President Carter's military mission to rescue the Iranian hostages and then linked this to U.S. failure in Vietnam. Both are ignomies that the film's narrative fantasy is designed to overcome.)
When Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) finds Rambo in the monastery, he tries to persuade Rambo to accompany him to Afghanistan to aid the resistance. Trautman tells Rambo that his presence will make a difference. Rambo asks, skeptically, "Not like last time?," meaning Vietnam, which he believes was a war the United States did not wish to win or try to win. Trautman reassures him that things will be different and tells Rambo that he has to come "full circle," that he'll always be emotionally crippled until he recognizes that he is a warrior, a full-blooded combat soldier. Trautman s advice was the directive for the country offered by the political Right, which viewed the legacy of Vietnam and the Carter years as a wrong-headed reluctance to use military power.
As a charged national symbol, rampaging through Southeast Asia (Rambo: First Blood, Part II) and Afghanistan (Rambo III), Rambo enacts his country's symbolic transformation in the Reagan years from disengagement and false consciousness to the triumphant application of military force. That this was an ideological transformation is demonstrated by a vivid disparity between the Reagan and Bush administrations. Despite the bellicosity of its political rhetoric, the Reagan administration launched no major military ventures. Its support for the Contra war against Nicaragua was a secret, black-bag operation. By contrast, in the first three years of the Bush presidency, the United States launched two military offensives, in Panama and Iraq. Rambo, therefore, was a projection of the political imagination rather than a correlate with real military ventures.
Like the Rambo pictures, other films in the cycle worked as explicit agitprop for a renewal of America's warrior spirit. Red Dawn, portraying a Soviet invasion of America, is a primer on Soviet hostility and the means of waging guerilla resistance. A daring band of high school students takes up arms against the invaders, and the generational symbolism was potent. While the focus on adolescents was partly a marketing ploy to attract the crucial young audience for motion pictures, it also enabled writer and director John Milius to make a political statement about differing administrations. It is the youth of today in the film—that is, of the Reagan years—that has the fortitude necessary to take up arms against oppression. At the end of the film, the young heroes are commemorated as great American patriots, alongside Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.
Another group of Soviet-sponsored invaders wreaks havoc on America in Invasion USA. The invaders are composed of blacks, Latins, and Asians, a catalog of groups excluded from the New Right's America, and they proceed to blow up churches, shopping malls, and families at home celebrating Christmas. Standing against this terrorist army is the national security infrastructure—the FBI, CIA, army, and police—and the film's hero, Hunter (Chuck Norris), a frontier cowboy who personifies America's mythology (out of the Western) of regenerate violence.
Rocky IV opens with a graphic showing a boxing glove emblazoned with the American flag and one with the hammer and sickle crashing against each other and exploding. The film pits Rocky against a robotic Soviet boxer named Drago, each character functioning as an explicit political emblem. Before he can fight his Soviet opponent, Rocky has to overcome his weakened state, as the country must do relative to the post-Vietnam years. The film opens to find him absorbed in material comforts, his body gone soft, and with no interest in squaring off against Drago. But once Drago brutally beats Rocky's friend to death, Americas hero goes back into training and pursues victory. Rocky's conversion from passivity to intervention is emblematic of the major discourse of this production cycle. These often-polemical films explicitly advocate the themes of Reagan-era foreign policy: the lamentable weakness of the United States, the viciousness of the Soviet Union and its allies, and the need for a resurgent American military and a Pax Americana.
Most of the films in this cycle are action narratives, many depict invasion-and-rescue scenarios (powerful American warriors defending the heartland against Soviet invaders or rescuing victims of the Soviets), and many display great anxieties over the fate of fathers or father figures who, in Red Dawn, Iron Eagle, Top Gun, and Rambo III, are threatened with capture and torture or whose authority is jeopardized because questions surround their honor. The heroes of Top Gun and Iron Eagle are tormented by the questions of honor that surround their father s behavior, and Rambo has to rescue Trautman, his surrogate father, when Trautman is captured by the Soviets in Afghanistan. The narratives collectively vindicate the honor of the father or father figure as a means of encoding and resolving the crisis of national authority to which the period's militarism was a response.
Furthermore, the prominence of the action-adventure format in the new cold war cycle is most important. The predictability of cold war thought—its rigidity, reductiveness, and patterned nature—facilitated its representation by action-adventure narratives. Because the ideology and the action narratives employ a repertoire of conventionalized expectations (rooted in their shared Manichean schema of good and evil), they bonded with each other as content and form. The vigilante, superhero narratives of action and violence provided a formal structure capable of absorbing the incipient violence and paranoia of cold war ideology. In this way, the cold war discourse became part of the structured rules governing the narrative operations of these films. Content and ideology, form and function became as one. Rambo, Hunter, and the other righteous heroes of the cycle emerged as sleek, powerful emblems of the political imagination. These invasion-and-rescue films structurally integrated political and narrative meaning in a fluid, sometimes seamless way. As such, they are extraordinarily successful examples of popular political filmmaking.
They are not, however, without their interesting contradictions. John Milius's Red Dawn aims to celebrate American guerrilla fighters seeking to overturn the Soviet dictatorship of America, and it cannot disengage itself from the Marxian tradition that promotes resistance and revolution. Thus, interesting ambiguities creep into its paranoid vision, most notably in the film's sympathetic characterization of a Cuban military officer who helps administer the occupation of America. Because the officer is a committed Marxist and a skilled guerrilla fighter, he becomes increasingly sympathetic to the film's heroes, the high school kids fighting the Soviet invaders. The Cuban officer feels empathy for these American commandos waging war against a corrupt regime supported, like Batista's was in Cuba, by an outside power. Thus, Red Dawn finds itself acknowledging that the United States and the Soviet Union share a common historical heritage of violent revolution and that this heritage might afford the basis of a cooperative relationship.
Rambo III analogizes the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with the American presence in Vietnam, thereby undercutting its cold war politics. Rambo's friend and mentor, Col. Trautman, is captured and tortured by the Soviets. Defiantly, he tells them,
You know there won't be a victory. Every day your war machines lose ground to a group of poorly armed, poorly equipped freedom fighters. The fact is that you underestimated your competition. If you'd studied your history, you'd know these people have never given up to anyone. They'd rather die than be slaves to an invading army. You can't defeat a people like that. We tried. We already had our Vietnam. Now you're gonna have yours.
This speech is a remarkable example of ideological conglomeration. It conjoins a leftist analysis of the U.S. role in Vietnam (envisioning the United States as an invader trying to crush an indigenous people's desire for freedom) with cold war perceptions of Soviet expansionism and the need for U.S. force to stop it. The cold war components of Trautman s speech use then-current terminology and thereby connect with domestic political agendas. "Freedom fighters" was the name given to the Nicaraguan Contras by the Reagan administration. The speech portrays the United States as both a Third World aggressor and a committed defender of Third World freedom and democracy. The ideological mishmash that results holds appeals for diverging political segments of the audience, as the imperatives of blockbuster economics reorganize the politics of the film.
Toward the end of the decade, world events swept past the paranoia of these films and the new cold war to which they belonged. The Soviet empire began to collapse, and the satellite nations of Eastern Europe became independent. These transformations registered in the new cold war cycle. At its conclusion, Rocky IV acknowledges the possibility of Soviet-American peace and cooperation. Rocky appeals to the Soviet audience in the name of brotherhood, freedom, and independence. They stand and give thunderous cheers to his ideals and are even joined by Soviet leaders. In Iron Eagle II (1988), a joint U.S.-Soviet military force battles a renegade Middle Eastern nation, and the film ends with an appeal for both nations to overcome their hostilities. In a similar fashion, Red Heat (1988), about an American cop and a Soviet policeman tracking a criminal wanted by both countries, envisioned and advocated a warmer U.S.-USSR relationship.
The new cold war films thus began to dissipate by decade's end. In part, this was a response to the changing conditions in Eastern Europe (the loosening of Soviet control), but it was also a sign that the film cycle itself had grown exhausted from repetition. From a narrative standpoint, it never had anywhere to go beyond the repetition of familiar and increasingly predictable scenarios of invasion, subversion, and rescue. The cycle and its sometimes strident politics wore out. Nevertheless, these new cold war productions constitute one of the most significant film cycles of the decade. The ideological explicitness of these films, their simplistic conflicts of good and evil and open political advocacy, tie them more closely to characteristics of propaganda than Hollywood generally has permitted in the past, except for the red-scare films of the HUAC period. The anti-Soviet politics of the Reagan years produced two major ideological tracts—Red Dawn and Rocky IV—and the other rescue and invasion films helped intensify and extend the nation's cold war culture.
Cold war, by definition, is the extension of military conflict to the realm of culture, where artworks substitute for battlefield engagements. These films thus helped acclimate their audiences to the prospect of unending geopolitical strife between rival empires. They helped create and sustain in their viewers a psychology of threat, of encirclement, of narrowed social and political discourse requisite for a heavily militarized society. Given the apocalyptic leanings of the films, one may rejoice that the political culture that nourished them eventually relaxed and abated. But they stand as a striking signpost of the decades fundamental political anxieties.
Political Rebellion and Rebel Filmmaking
One of the great idées fixes of the Reagan administration was a corollary of the new cold war, and it helped inspire a provocative and unique film cycle (as well as, unfortunately, a great deal of real-world suffering). This was the belief that the Soviet Union was consolidating control over Central America and might use this territory as a staging ground for an attack on the United States. President Reagan told a joint session of Congress in 1983, "The national security of all the Americas is at stake in Central America. If we cannot defend ourselves there, we cannot expect to prevail elsewhere. Our credibility would collapse, our alliances would crumble, and the safety of our homeland would be put in jeopardy."17
In so speaking, President Reagan tied the new cold war to the one begun under President Truman and viewed it as a continuation of the former. He cited the Truman Doctrine in a 1983 speech before Congress on the threat posed to the United States by the revolutionary government in Nicaragua (which the administration considered a Soviet proxy). Remarking that Truman's words pledging defense of "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" were as relevant in 1983 as in 1947, Reagan outlined a scenario in which creeping Soviet totalitarianism threatened the northern hemisphere and demanded a vigorous U.S. response. To justify Truman's pledge to intervene against the Left in Greece, Dean Acheson in 1949 had employed the "rotten apple" theory of Communist subversion: "Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the East. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France."18 President Reagan replicated the geopolitical logic of Acheson's scenario. Explaining why the "loss" of Nicaragua was so threatening to world peace, Reagan said, "Using Nicaragua as a base, the Soviets and Cubans can become the dominant power in the crucial corridor between North and South America. Established there, they will be in a position to threaten the Panama Canal, interdict our vital Caribbean sea lanes and, ultimately, move against Mexico."19
The events that triggered the administration's obsession with Central America as a Soviet proxy were a series of leftist governments assuming power in a region that the United States had always regarded as its backyard, where it claimed the prerogative of deciding which governments stayed in place and which did not. In 1979, Maurice Bishop's socialist New Jewel Movement overthrew the government of Eric Gairy in Grenada, which was backed by the United States and Great Britain. Also in 1979, and regarded as a more significant threat, the Sandinista National Liberation Front toppled the corrupt Somoza dynasty that had ruled Nicaragua since it was installed by the U.S. Marines in 1933. A strong guerilla army confronted the Guatemalan government, and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front posed a credible military and political challenge to El Salvador's rulers.
Egregiously bad social and economic conditions motivated the popular rebellions in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Huge concentrations of wealth and land in the hands of a few, alongside massive poverty, disfigured these societies. In Guatemala during the 1970s, for example, the top quarter of the population earned 67 percent of the nation's wealth while the bottom quarter earned only 7 percent.20 Ninety percent of the rural work force owned no land. In El Salvador, conditions were worse. Two percent of the population owned 60 percent of the land and earned one-third of the nation's income.21 In 1975, more than 45 percent of the rural population was estimated to be unemployed.22 Despite these glaring socioeconomic problems, the administration chose to see Soviet meddling as the cause of the regional conflicts.
In Guatemala and El Salvador, the governments were run by or were closely allied with the military, which received large amounts of U.S. aid and training. The military and the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments used this aid to conduct internal repression, subjecting dissidents, priests, teachers, and other citizens to a slaughter that was especially bloody in the early 1980s. In its 1984 report on El Salvador, Amnesty International protested "the continued involvement of all branches of the security and military forces in a systematic and widespread program of torture, mutilation, 'disappearance,' and the individual and mass extrajudicial execution of men, women and children from all sectors of Salvadoran society."23 The group reached similar conclusions regarding Guatemala. Meanwhile, the United States funded the regimes and trained many of the officers implicated in these acts.
The fires of revolution in Central America burned brightly enough that a remarkable cycle of film production coalesced around these issues. Whereas the Red Dawn Rambo III cycle explicitly manifested the era's cold war ideologies, the Latin America films broke with the assumptions of Washington foreign policy and offered sympathetic portraits of the regional uprisings. In place of the political paranoia of the new cold war cycle, the Latin America films largely defended the regional rebellions. The collective focus of Missing (1982), Under Fire (1983), El Norte (1984), Latino (1985), Salvador (1986), and Romero (1989) is a hemispheric one as these films dramatize events in Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Furthermore, while the conflicts the films portray make for highly charged drama, consistent with popular cinema, these pictures are inclined toward the interventionist aesthetics and politics of a committed, partisan cinema whose sympathies are with the political Left.
The unusual attributes of this cycle are partly due to its conditions of production. While Missing and Under Fire are major studio films, the others are independent productions. Salvador was financed and distributed by Hemdale. Romero financed by a number of Catholic organizations, and El Norte was directed by independent filmmaker Gregory Nava with distribution by Island Alive. Latino was made on a shoestring budget by cinematographer and engaged leftist Haskell Wexler. Operating outside the mechanisms of studio funding and distribution, this film cycle broke with the predominant assumptions of cold war thought and the strictures governing the political expressions deemed appropriate in a Hollywood film. By doing so, these films demonstrated how nontraditional mechanisms of funding and distribution can facilitate the expression of alternative sociopolitical views.
El Norte is the least partisan film in the cycle. It tells a story about two Guatemalan teenagers fleeing the poverty and repression of their country. They make an arduous journey north to the United States, which they believe will provide them with freedom and abundance. Policies of cultural segregation confine them to a Spanish section of Los Angeles, where a succession of menial jobs and further impoverishment becomes their future. Compared to the other films in the cycle, El Norte is less directly concerned with the strife in Latin America. Its characters seek to avoid this strife in their journey to the United States, and the specifics of the Guatemalan political situation fall outside the film's narrative trajectory. But the economic oppression and military persecution in Guatemala provide the motivation for the story, and the film's harsh exposé of the hardships suffered by refugees from the conflict, and the closed opportunities available to them in the United States, place El Norte in the politically critical company of the other films in the cycle.
As a studio picture (distributed by Orion) with big stars (Nick Nolte and Gene Hackman), Under Fire has the most conventional and formulaic structure of this group of films. It is a journalistic version of love in the tropics, dealing with the romantic triangle among three U.S. reporters (Nolte, Joanna Cassidy, and Hackman) covering the uprising in Nicaragua in 1979. As such, romance and action are foreground elements in the narrative, but the film's political sympathies are clearly stated. The story studies the conversion of reporters Nolte and Cassidy from detached (i.e., objective) journalists to partisans of the revolution who fake a news photo to aid the rebellion. The film ends with the triumph of the Sandinistas and the American reporters' assertion that they'd do it all again (i.e., fake the photo to aid the cause) if they had to.
Despite the formulaic romance of the story and its straightforward emphasis on action, Under Fire offers an important sequence that deconstructs the film's melodrama. The National Guard murder reporter Hackman, and Claire (Joanna Cassidy) breaks down when she sees news footage of the execution. The camera moves in close to capture her sadness, and the music swells to wrap viewer and character in its emotional embrace. But the scene's preferring of sweet pathos is abruptly interrupted. A Nicaraguan nurse glances at her skeptically and points out that thousands of Nicaraguans have died fighting the Somoza dynasty. "Maybe we should have killed an American journalist fifty years ago," she says, meaning that maybe now North Americans will care about what is happening here. Stung by these words, Claire stops weeping, and the scene ends. The historical perspective supplied by the nurse neutralizes the melodramatic pleasures toward which the scene had been building. One American's death, after all, pales beside the deaths of so many Nicaraguans. Hollywood films rarely question the melodramatic discourse they offer. Under Fire not only does this but places it in the service of political analysis.
Latino offers another perspective on the conflict in Nicaragua but one that is less successful as political cinema. The story deals with two Hispanic Green Berets who clandestinely train the Contra forces in Nicaragua as part of a CIA-funded army. One of the officers comes to question his mission and its political objectives, and at the end he is captured by Nicaraguans defending their farm co-op against Contra attacks. Unfortunately the film's dialogue often sounds like political sloganeering, and the narrative moves clumsily to make its political points. As a result, the political perspectives become heavy-handed and preach to the already converted rather than communicate in the visceral and popular manner of the new cold war films.
Like Under Fire but with a more sustained political vision, Missing employs the conventions of Hollywood cinema (an emotionally charged narrative and stars Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek) to construct a powerful portrait of the 1973 military coup in Chile that, with U.S. support, overthrew the elected government of socialist president Salvador Allende. Unlike the dramas about the reclamation of a father's honor in the new cold war films, Missing presents a tale of the sacrifice of a son by a complacent father, Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon), who has castigated his son's political affiliation with the Chilean poor and, too late, learns the sobering truth about U.S. complicity in the coup. Horman's transformation from a naive and complacent American to one whose ideological blinkers have been painfully torn off is the film's central and most powerful political device. Beyond this, the film vividly portrays the ferocity of the military coup, accompanied by book burnings and the abduction and murder of civilians, and director Constantin Costa-Gavras creates resonant images that work as political metaphors. During the coup, for example, a crowd of Chilean bourgeoisie interrupt their party to applaud the troops marching below their window. The soldiers, in turn, salute the bourgeoisie in a series of shots that explicate the class allegiances driving the coup.
The conflicts in El Salvador were portrayed with much emotional force in two disparate films, Romero and Salvador. The former film dramatizes the life of the Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero (portrayed by Raul Julia) from his appointment in 1977 to his 1980 assassination, concentrating on his growing commitment to the poor and to a belief in the legitimacy of open insurrection against the government. Toward the end of his life, Romero declared, "These are insurrectional times. The morality of the church permits insurrection when all other paths have been exhausted."24 Through its compassionate portrayal of Romero's political radicalization, the film shows the conditions that helped generate "liberation theology," a clergy in support of the poor and oppressed, motivated by outrage over the scale of the oppression in Guatemala and El Salvador and from a conviction that the Bible contains a social and political message that is revolutionary in its implications as it councils clergy to stand with the poor and dispossessed.
Like Salvador, Romero structures its narrative with reference to especially egregious real-life outrages, such as the murder of Father Rutilio Grande, who was assassinated in 1977 while on his way to mass. The army then occupied the town, conducted house-to-house searches, and beat the occupants. The assasination of Grande marked a new and darker chapter in Salvadoran politics, in which priests were targeted by the army and death squads. (Romero was another victim of this campaign.) In the film, after Grandes assassination, the army occupies the church, and Romero returns to it to retrieve the Eucharist. An American soldier blocks his way and machine-guns the altar in a shocking display of sacrilege and political contempt. Through this character, the film acknowledges, obliquely, the American role in the conflict, the side the United States had chosen, and the conflict with the U.S. government that Romeros evolving politics would precipitate.
The film, however, remains ambivalent about the extent of Romeros conversion to liberation theology. Late in the film, in a scene that complicates his stance, he accuses a priest, allied with the guerrillas, of losing God and waging class warfare just like the rich. But despite its uneasiness over Romero's politics, the film eloquently portrays the suffering of the archbishop and his country. At the climax, as Romero pleads during mass for the military to lay down its arms and stop the slaughter, his words are intercut with photographs of real death squad victims, their mutilations offering eloquent testimony for his plea. And in the final shot of the film, stirred by Romero's prophecy that he will arise in the Salvadoran people and that their suffering will lead to El Salvador's liberation, a crowd of urban poor rises, walks toward the camera, and engulfs it.
Salvador, directed by Oliver Stone, portrays the most notorious acts of terror and violence during 1980-81 in El Salvador (these included the rape and murder of a group of American church women and the assassination of Archbishop Romero). Like Missing and its portrait of the U.S. role in Chile, Salvador explicitly fixes blame for the disintegration of Salvadoran civil society on U.S. support for a repressive military regime. The film dramatizes the impact of Ronald Reagan's presidential victory on the political process in El Salvador, particularly the ultra-Right's belief that terror and violence against the Left would be accepted by Washington. The film shows death squads riding through the streets, firing their guns into the air, as radios announce Reagan's presidential victory. The film contextualizes President Reagan's cold war rhetoric in terms of its human cost in a sequence that intercuts the president on television warning about the Communist march through Central America and into the United States with shots of hospitalized children who were wounded by the Salvadoran military. The film also implies that the Reagan administration signaled El Salvador's right wing that death squad activities would be tolerated in the name of anticommunism. Furthermore, in a practice unusual for the American cinema, Stone identifies left-wing political organizations by name (e.g., the FMLN and the Democratic Revolutionary Front).
In the film's most politically pointed scene, the protagonist, Richard Boyle (James Woods), denounces U.S. intervention. Boyle tells a U.S. colonel and a State Department analyst, "You haven't presented one shred of proof to the American public that this is anything but a legitimate peasant revolution." He charges that the death squads are the brainchild of the CIA. "You let them shut down the universities, wipe out the best minds in the country. You let them kill whoever they want, let them wipe out the Catholic Church, and all because they're not Communists." This sequence contains the most explicit denunciations of U.S. foreign policy ever offered by an American film, and they came from the battle zone, at a time when the events and anguish the film depicts were still ongoing.
Despite the film's partisan objections to U.S. intervention, though, Salvador shows some ambivalence in its regard for the guerrillas. During the picture's climax, Boyle sees them commiting battlefield executions, and he condemns them for being as brutal as the ultra-Right. This ambivalence toward the political Left is an enduring feature of American cinema, and the other films in this cycle have difficulty, as well, engaging the Left as a viable alternative in the region. Missing fails to identify the Allende government by name or even the country where the events in the film occur. The guerrillas in Romero and Under Fire remain a nebulous presence, vaguely defined as to policies and goals. The political Left has traditionally eluded the representational conventions of the American cinema, and it should not be surprising that the same problem recurs in this cycle of films, despite its inclination toward engagement with the cause of the region's poor.
Despite this tendency, the cycle clearly positioned itself outside the framework of cold war politics that regarded the problems in Latin America as a local manifestation of the global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite the ambivalence about revolution that is an indelible part of U.S. culture and that many of these films share, this small group of oppositional works engaged the controversies of their historical moment and tried to envision an alternative and more humane political future. The Reagan administration's account of Communist subversion and falling dominoes maintained the claims of empire, based in traditional attitudes regarding Central America as the backyard, or property, of the United States. By suggesting that the roots of insurrection lay in indigenous, oppressive socio-economic conditions, rather than in a power projection by Moscow, these films challenged imperial prerogatives by endorsing regional claims to free government and an end to dictatorship and the misery it helped create.
Given the predominance of cold war thought in the 1980s, it should come as no surprise that at least one prominent Hollywood film placed the Latin America conflicts in a cold war package. Predator (1988), an Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle, offered a strikingly literal manifestation of cold war anxieties, albeit transposed into science fiction terms. In the film's story, consistent with new cold war narrative scenarios of invasion and rescue, the CIA recruits a team of commandos to go into an unnamed Central American country where guerilla fighters are holding American hostages. Once there, however, the commandos find that an alien warrior is hunting them. Central America, it seems, really is in the grip of an alien subversive presence! At the climax, a nuclear explosion saves the region from the alien invader. The fantasy of the narrative offered a solution to the region's problems that otherwise could not be articulated in real-world discourse.
But fantasy might offer other solutions as well. Just as the region s problems could be given a cold war twist with Predator, they might also be played for laughs. Paul Mazursky's Moon Over Parador (1988) is a comedy about dictatorship and repression in the mythical country of Parador. At the end, under a new populist government, the CIA, the aristocracy, and the guerrillas join hands and live in harmony and peace. Predator and Moon over Parador, though, are clearly outliers of the Latin America film cycle, the core politics of which were outside mainstream discourse and opposed to Washington's line on the region's disorders.
Compared with the new cold war films, the Latin America pictures had negligible box-office effect. This was certainly a function of their limited, often independent distribution. But it was also due to the cycles inability to fuse genre and ideology in the powerful manner achieved by the new cold war films. Reinforcing dominant ideologies may always hold greater profit potential. Top Gun earned $82 million in rentals for Paramount in 1986. Rocky IV earned $76 million, Rambo III $28 million, and Red Dawn $17 million, whereas Missing, the top earner in the Latin America cycle, returned only $8 million in rentals. Based on these box-office returns, the cold war fantasies seemed to have had greater resonance for the moviegoing public during the eighties than the Latin America cycle. The cold war films more successfully fused their politics with popular genre elements. On the other hand, the small group of films about Latin America earnestly tried to understand and portray the regional conditions breeding insurrection and thereby expose North American viewers to alternative accounts of the region's turmoil, envisioning hope for a better future. These films offered a persuasive and powerful counterforce to the cold war drift of American political culture in the eighties and the right-wing politics of the Sylvester Stallone—Chuck Norris action epics. As such, their redemptive and humanistic value was an essential part of eighties cinema.
The Vietnam War Cycle
During the 1980s, the Vietnam War finally received the extensive screen treatment that had been so conspicuously lacking in the 1960s and 1970s, when Hollywood preferred to ignore the issue, believing it to be too controversial and therefore bad box office. The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and Apocalypse Now in 1978-79 marked the beginning of a sustained wave of production that swept across much of the 1980s. The latter three pictures were major studio productions, with big-name stars, and were supported with aggressive marketing campaigns. They therefore had great visibility.
Furthermore, when The Deer Hunter won five Academy Awards, including best picture and director, the Hollywood industry signaled officially that its long-standing ban on Vietnam War films had ended. (Throughout the seventies, however, Vietnam had figured indirectly in American films, most unfortunately in the tiresome stereotype of the psycho killer who is a Vietnam vet in pictures like The Visitors , Taxi Driver , Rolling Thunder , and The Exterminator .)25 Hollywood's willingness to support major productions about the war (i.e., those that treated the war explicitly and not as a background element) was partly a function of the passage of time having made the subject more approachable than in the contentious years of the war itself. But the passage of too much time might also be a problem. American ground troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, and if American cinema was ever to make films about that war, time was slipping away. Box-office interest in the subject depended on timely treatments.
But there is a more significant reason for the cycle than time having making the subject safer. Hollywood took up the Vietnam War because it still reverberated throughout American society and culture. It remained resonant and powerful as a traumatic national experience and because American culture had never achieved a consensus about the war or about the U.S. defeat. Was it a good war? Was it necessary? Why had the United States lost? These questions transfixed the nation in the eighties, making the aftershocks of Vietnam major forces in the eras political culture. Commentators across the political spectrum agreed that the politics of resurgent America were an effort to overcome the lingering effects of the Vietnam defeat.26 The war created a breach in the U.S. empire, and the terrible social conflicts of the Vietnam years had inhibited subsequent projections of U.S. power. The specter of Vietnam, for example, haunted U.S. responses to the conflicts in Central America. In the early 1980s, when a U.S. invasion seemed a real possibility, Nicaragua and El Salvador were often described as the new Vietnam and Central America a new quagmire for the country. Rather than risk this, the administration decided to intervene surreptitiously, by means of clandestine CIA support for the Contras and the provision of funding and training for government security forces in El Salvador.
Hollywood turned to Vietnam in the 1980s, then, because the issue remained a provocative one and because the politics of the period were compelling an examination of this legacy so that it might, at last, be exorcised. As a result, American film helped lead a national dialogue about the war and provided the images and narratives that would, for young viewers, count as persuasive evidence about the war and as a history of it. In doing so, American film forged a powerful relationship with a popular audience around this subject. Unfortunately, American film has tended to work better as myth than as history, and Hollywood's Vietnam productions were no exception. They treated the war through symbol, metaphor, and allegory and failed to portray some of its crucial historical elements. They offered vivid and cathartic imagery but unreliable history.
The Vietnam productions fell into two categories, roughly separated at mid-decade. During the first half of the 1980s, the problem of Americans missing in action furnished the basis for what regrettably became an increasingly cartoonish series of action-adventure films starring, most notably, Chuck Noms and Sylvester Stallone. Productions in this category included Uncommon Valor (1983) (much less cartoonish than its successors), the low-budget P.O.W.: The Escape (1986), Chuck Noms series beginning in 1984 with Missing in Action, continuing with Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985), and concluding with Braddock: Missing in Action III (1988), and the ideological and stylistic climax of the cycle, II Rambo: First Blood, Part (1984), Sylvester Stallone's sequel to First Blood (1982), the picture that introduced his John Rambo character.
The problem of Americans missing in action and the humanitarian issues surrounding their identification and return were urgently compelling ones; they had remained one of the war's lingering and unresolved dilemmas and were among its bitterest legacies. Compared with the war's other politically divisive issues, though, the MIA question was one about which consensus was easier. It was therefore a relatively safer topic for film production than other aspects of the war would be. Considering this, then, it is remarkable how quickly the MIA films degenerated into comic book fantasy, becoming in the Stallone and Norris vehicles celebratory bloodfests about the exploits of superhuman American warriors. Stallones Rambo and Norris's Braddock characters return to Vietnam in the postwar period to search for American MIAs, and they reengage the enemy, winning a series of spectacular skirmishes that carried redemptive value for America and worked as symbolic victories and as negations of the national defeat that had proven to be so haunting. It is significant that the narratives of the Rambo and Braddock movies are set after 1973, when real historical events cannot contest the substitute symbolic victories of the stories.
The climax of the MIA cycle is Rambo, a film whose hero is so outsized, so overcharged, and so unstoppable that his victory against the Vietnamese was never in question, as assured, according to the argument constructed by the film's ideological narrative, as U.S. victory should have been, had the country wanted to win. As the pure distillation of U.S. martial prowess, Rambo gets to rewrite history by beating the foe his country could not. Before going into action, Rambo asks Colonel Trautman, "Do we get to win this time?" Rambo wins by beating the Vietnamese at their own game. He uses the jungle as cover, striking his enemies suddenly and then disappearing, fighting with primitive weapons, a knife and bow, instead of high-tech gear. In the film's most extravagant reinvention, as a superb guerilla fighter, Rambo (in fantasy) becomes the Vietnamese (in history). As one scholar of the Vietnam War films has noted, "To 'win' the war we are symbolically re-fighting on the screen, to reverse the verdict of history, we must be transformed into our enemies (who won in the 'real' world), while they are transformed into us."27
This transformation occurs in the Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone films through an inversion of the military dynamics of the war. The films depict American warriors who are masters of guerilla tactics and jungle combat. By contrast, the Vietnamese blunder through the brush and are hampered by its confines. Furthermore, in Rambo, the Vietnamese are pictured as being confined to a fixed position in a fortress. In actuality, it was the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF), America's opponents, who were the masters of guerilla combat, effectively employing hit-and-run tactics that badgered and frustrated U.S. forces. Mobility is a cardinal principle of guerilla warfare, where stratagems are based on flexibility, on the surprise and suddenness of attacking and retreating."28 The NVA and NLF positioned battalions in remote areas and then enticed Americans into those areas, where they could be attacked at will. Countrywide, guerilla activities tied down and harassed American forces.29 As a result, the NVA and NLF were able to force American troops into a reactive defense role and permitted the Vietnamese to attack at their own discretion. By choosing when to fight, the NVA and NLF were able to control the size of their losses. In contrast to these strategems, American forces practiced counterinsurgency methods designed to sever the connection between the guerrillas and their base of popular support. These methods had two components. One, search and destroy, involved trying to take the war to the enemy by destroying his means of support among the people and off the land, while the other, pacification, involved trying to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese.30" In neither case were the Americans adapting to the jungle and building strategies that made effective use of it.
The Rambo and Braddock films, however, proffered a historical fantasy in which the wily American guerilla fights circles around the befuddled Vietnamese. This scenario offered an elaborate denial of America's defeat in that war and altered the terms of the American presence in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Rambo's guerilla tactics symbolically transform the American military from a counterinsurgency force to a revolutionary one (e.g., by waging guerilla war against occupying powers, the Soviets and the NVA, as depicted in the film), permitting American culture to imaginatively reclaim its revolutionary heritage. But it was the problematic relationship of this heritage to Americas role in Vietnam that was among the most explosive issues of the war. The Stallone and Norris films, though, were not about to reexamine the war's tortuous complexities and do them justice. Instead, the films offered fantasies calculated to appeal to the politics of resurgent America.
In the Rambo dramas, Stallone's emotionally bruised veteran longs for love and acceptance by his countrymen, yet the films' insistence on his blood-crazed warrior impulses denotes a degree of ambivalence toward this character. The ambivalence is strongest in First Blood, the film that introduced the character. There, Rambo is clearly a psychopath. He responds to police harassment by escaping to the woods of the Pacific Northwest, setting traps that wound and mutilate his police pursuers, then returns to town to blow up a gas station and a hardware store and to machine-gun the local sheriff. A psychopath gunning down local police does not make a fit hero for a movie series, so subsequent films relocated Rambo far from U.S. soil and turned him loose on America's enemies, the Soviets and the Vietnamese.
Rambo's ongoing bloodthirst, then, links him to those loners, crazies, and vigilantes that made up Hollywood's unfortunate portrait of Vietnam veterans in 1970s films. But public attitudes toward Vietnam veterans had been shifting, moving toward a recognition that they deserved honor and acceptance. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for example, was dedicated in Washington, D.C., in 1982 and symbolized the change in public opinion. Inevitably, Hollywood responded to this shift, and beginning in 1986, films dispensed with the Rambo paradigm. The picture that initiated this change was Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986). Stone's film about a platoon split between the examples offered by its two sergeants, one saintly, the other savage, had enormous impact on viewers and other filmmakers by virtue of its close attention to the physical experience of living and fighting in a jungle environment and by virtue of its refusal of comic book superheroics. Stone had served in Vietnam, and he had long wanted to make a picture that would show the onerous conditions of that war and the bravery of American soldiers.
But he also knew the savagery of the war and its terrible effects on the country. As a result, he avoided a simplistic celebration of American courage and fortitude (the Rambo films had already done this) and created a film, instead, that examined ideals and their corruption, nobility and heroism and cruelty. (In this context, it is striking that Stone assented to the Chrysler Corp. ad carried by Platoon on home video. In the ad, Chrysler's Lee Iacocca recuperates Vietnam as a war like all other wars the United States has fought and proclaims that Vietnam exemplified the true spirit of America, which is to go to war when called. This principle, in fact, was among the most hotly contested issues of the war. About agreeing to the ad, Stone subsequently remarked, "I shouldn't have done that.")31 The resulting work was exceptionally powerful, corrosive even, but its great popular success demonstrated that the moviegoing public wanted honest, if difficult, treatments of the war.
To achieve his multifaceted portrait, Stone used a bildungsroman narrative about the moral education of a naive new recruit, Taylor (Charlie Sheen), whose admiration and loyalties are torn between two surrogate fathers, Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berringer). Elias embodies the humane impulses that Stone locates in the American soldiers, while Barnes represents the savage and debasing aspects of war. In the film's symbolic parable, Barnes kills Elias, implying that in Vietnam ideals were sacrificed to savagery, yet it is Elias's example that is the enduring one and that the film affirms. Through his narrative structure, Stone presents Vietnam as a singularly American experience. Rendering it through the prism of metaphor and allegory, he represents it as a struggle between good and evil, waged within the American heart and soul. In his closing reflection, Taylor concludes, "I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy. We fought ourselves, and the enemy was in us." While this made for powerful filmmaking, it remained a solipsistic point of view, however, excluding the Vietnamese from the war and most of its historical context. But in fairness to the film, these were not its intentions.
Platoon announced the new direction for Vietnam productions. Instead of offering falsely inflated heroics, Platoon and its successors, Hamburger Hill (1987), 84 Charlie Mopic (1989), The Hanoi Hilton (1987), and Gardens of Stone eulogized the American presence in Vietnam. They found American heroism in the ability of its soldiers to endure suffering and privations while participating in a venture whose purpose and ideals few felt good about. Productions during the second half of the decade thereby helped rehabilitate the screen image of the Vietnam soldier and veteran, an image that had been badly tarnished during the seventies and early eighties. This revised focus should be counted as a major achievement of American film during the latter eighties, especially as these affirmative and elegiac portraits achieved such resonance for many who served in Vietnam. Offsetting these more affirmative portraits were continuing meditations upon the darkness, corruption, and brutality of the war in Full Metal Jacket (1987), Off Limits (1988), and Casualties of War (1989).
Just as the war generated split and contending interpretations of its history and seemed to resist historical closure, American film never succeeded in fully coming to terms with it. This was probably more a problem of political culture than of cinema, but eighties Vietnam films are instructive in this regard. They collectively sought and employed metaphor, symbolism, and mythology, rather than historical perspective, in an effort to grasp the war's significance and convey it to audiences. Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) employed metaphors of bodily and spiritual corruption and symbolic dualities of decency and savagery contending for the American heart as narrative modes for understanding the war. This spiritual and metaphysical focus coexisted with an emphasis on the immediate, physical experiences of soldiers in the jungle (84 Charlie Mopic, Hamburger Hill, Platoon).
These emphases made for good poetry and powerful filmmaking, but their philosophical and symbolic designs omitted key aspects of the war that are decisive for its comprehension. Despite the Pentagon's extensive intelligence on the NVA and NLF that clarified their administrative structure and operational methods, the Vietnamese enemy has typically appeared in the films as a shadowy figure darting through the jungle. The Pentagon knew the enemy well and had gathered a great deal of data about the forces the United States was fighting. But Hollywood's films imply otherwise. There, the enemy is portrayed in the vaguest of terms. In doing so, these films break with a longstanding tradition in Hollywood war movies of portraying enemies in vivid and detailed ways. Only one film of the eighties—GOod Morning, Vietnam (1987),—sufficiently individualized a Vietnamese guerrilla fighter as to allow him to state cogently his reasons for battling the Americans. This is an interesting bias when one considers the plethora of World War II films that permit the Nazis to state their cause and that, on occasion, even draw individual characters as tragic and sympathetic figures.
The United States was in Vietnam ostensibly to assist the government of South Vietnam and its army in fighting the North. However, portraits of the South Vietnamese regime and the political forces with which the United States allied itself are almost totally lacking in eighties films. In them, as in Hollywood Westerns, American soldiers fight alone against a lurking enemy. The roots of the war lay in the immediate years following World War II and the U.S. decision to support the French in an effort to retain Vietnam as a colony, but virtually all eighties productions are set in the late 1960s, a time of high drama but one that does not clarify the reasons for the war. This restrictive time period enables filmmakers to provide little more than a snapshot of a much broader event.
In addition, the bombing campaign against North Vietnam and its ferocity were among the most controversial facets of the war, but the air war has remained relatively unexamined on film, with the occasional exception in pictures like Flight of the Intruder (1991) and 21 (1988). Furthermore, when Hollywood films acknowledge domestic opposition to the war, it tends to be presented as protest in the streets. The protagonist in Bat Gardens of Stone, for example, punches out an obnoxious antiwar liberal who is an obvious agitator. By 1970, though, most Americans wanted the United States out of Vietnam, a position that was coupled with dislike for antiwar protestors.32 Thus, at that time many Americans were against the war even as they disliked public protest. For the films, then, to equate antiwar opposition with street protest is to minimize the unpopularity of the war and the extent of domestic opposition to it.
Because the foregoing elements are missing from most eighties Vietnam films, the cycle offers young viewers (who get their history from movies and television) an extremely vivid but incomplete portrait of the war. Without knowing the enemy and the conflict's history, the war cannot be understood. With their laudable intentions, the Vietnam films constructed a cultural discourse on the war that has substituted in cinema for its painful history. The films removed from the war some of its most important social, historical, and political factors. In their place, they present the war as a bleak, existential landscape of violence and death, resistant to comprehension and devoid of larger meanings except those of American courage and fortitude. This focus lent itself especially well to the overtly philosophical and symbolic design of The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. A complementary focus, tied to the presentation of Southeast Asia as an existential arena containing a bloody conflict without apparent meaning, was the celebration of brotherhood, camaraderie, and honor among the ground troops in 84 Charlie Mopic, Hamburger Hill, Gardens of Stone, and Platoon.
The American experience in Vietnam has come to be seen on film as a journey into the heart of darkness, into an irrational region of savagery that defies explanation. This, of course, is a political position and argument, and it tends to insulate the war from close scrutiny for a popular audience. Francis Ford Coppola was more prescient than he may have known when he and his screenwriters transposed Joseph Conrad's metaphor to the Vietnam War, for in one way or another American films of the 1980s remained trapped within the terms of that metaphor.
Dystopian Science Fiction
While the productions of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and the Star Trek series accounted for the top science fiction hits of the decade, a darker cycle of pessimistic scifi productions extrapolated from ongoing socioeconomic problems of eighties American society and projected these into a grim and dystopian future. In the guise of science fiction, American film pictured pessimistic visions of contemporary society and its ailing economy, visions that were stark antitheses to the emotional cheeriness and social optimism of the Lucas-Spielberg pictures.
While Ronald Reagan proclaimed the virtues of unfettered capitalism and the need for increased defense spending and reduced social services, these dystopian thrillers portrayed possible outcomes of such policies several generations hence. The future world they conjured was nonapocalyptic; that is, it represented no radical, violent break with the present but rather an extension. (Thus, The Terminator , which pictures a postapocalyptic society, does not fit with this cycle.) Environmental pollution, urban decay and overcrowding, drugs, violent crime, homelessness and unemployment, media manipulation and domination of political discourse, corporate concentration and the irresponsible pursuit of profit, alliances between corporate and state power—these modern conditions, projected into the future, linked the worlds of the dystopian sci-fi cycle with recognizable elements of contemporary society. The dystopian thrillers threw up a disturbing mirror image of contemporary U.S. culture and warned, through the imaginative mediations of fantasy, "Look at what you could become."
The dystopian cycle spanned the entire decade and included Alien (1979) and its sequel Aliens (1986), Escape from New York (1981), Outland (1981) Blade Runner (1982), The Running Man (1987), Robocop (1987) and its sequel Robocop 2 (1990), and Total Recall (1990). Described by one critic as "new bad future films," the pictures presented striking visions of "the present caught in the future."33 In every case, the portrait was an unflattering one and stressed chronic conditions of political and economic injustice. In Escape from New York, Manhattan has been turned into a giant prison colony for political prisoners and criminals, run by a quasi-fascist police state. In Outland, Blade Runner, the two Alien films, and Total Recall, ruthless corporations, allied with the state, engage in interplantary imperialism and readily sacrifice human victims in their quest for new markets and weapons. In The Running Man, Robocop, and Total Recall, the mass media manufacture counterfeit realities that undermine reliable perceptions of self and society.
Running through most of these films, and arising as a response to the commerce and corruption they depict, is a crisis of self and psyche. The worlds depicted here are filled with ersatz realities, created by the media or the corporate state and confusing the boundaries between real and not real. "More human than human" is the slogan of Blade Runners Tyrell Corp., which manufactures synthetic humans, called replicants. Murphy, the robotized cop in Robocop, is tormented by vestigial memories of his human life and family. In Total Recall, customers contract with Rekall, Inc., for memory implants that simulate exciting and enjoyable vacations. Rekall advertises, "You can buy the memory of your ideal vacation cheaper, safer, and better than the real thing." When Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) buys an implant, he is plunged into a nightmare world in which he can no longer distinguish between real events and those occurring only in his mind.
Thus, in Robocop, Total Recall, and Blade Runner, psychic crisis accompanies, and is engendered by, the pathologies of state and economy. In this connection, it is notable that director Ridley Scott added extra footage to the director's cut of Blade Runner, released on home video in the 1990s, that made the character of Deckard, the protagonist, more ambiguous and raised an unanswered question about whether he is a human or a replicant. (Both Blade Runner and Total Recall are based on the fiction of Philip K. Dick, whose concerns about the mechanization of human identity and the production of machines that seem more real than their inventors are core anxieties of the dystopian cycle.)
Blade Runner, an enormously influential film in the cycle, boasted a brilliant production design by Laurence J. Paull and Syd Mead that established an enduring miseen-scène for the new bad future films: a megalopolis of high-tech grandeur perched atop decaying architectural forms, choked by a multicultural mass of overpopulated urban poor. The dissolution of geographical, architectural, and cultural boundaries, visualized by the mise-en-scène in visual and acoustic flux of its dense cityscape, evokes a post-modern landscape. It is a world whose epistemological boundaries have collapsed and is awash in a sea of simulacra and pseudorealities ("more human than human"). Syd Mead described the mixture of opulence and decay in Blade Runner's futurist city as
a rather depressing "alley" environment which is a negative caricature of the normal city street. The result: a maze of mechanical detail overlaid onto barely recognizable architecture producing an encrusted combination of style which we humorously labeled "retro-deco." … Everything had to have a patina of grime and soot over a makeshift high-tech feeling."34
Blade Runner's city envisions the internationalization of capital linked with a crumbling infrastructure. Various languages and cultures coexist among the multicultural populace while hovercars and electronic billboards advertise consumer goods and the pleasures to be found in the off-world colonies. Drawing the connections between the film's mise-en-scène and contemporary eighties society, Giuliana Bruno stressed, "The link betwen postmodernism and late capitalism is highlighted in the film's representation of post-industrial decay. The future does not realize an idealized, aseptic technological order, but is seen simply as the development of the present state of the city and of the social order of late capitalism."35
In their narratives of commerce gone mad and rampant, in which both the psyche and the outer environment have been transformed into commodities, the dystopian films collectively envisioned a widening gulf between rich and poor, the operation of social services by for-profit corporations, and the extension of market values across the entire spectrum of society and human relations. Robocop was especially relentless and savage in its satire of these conditions. In its future society, the private business sector has been completely deregulated and now runs Detroit, with the Omni Consumer Products corporation funding the police department and the military. OCP markets ED-209, an enforcement robot programmed for urban pacification. "We practically are the military," OCP's chief remarks, alluding to the alliance of industry and coercive force that has made the film's Detroit into a new center of fascism. The public's attention is diverted from this unholy alliance by the media's infotainment programming, that is, entertainment masquerading as news. A series of "Media Breaks" punctuate the film's narrative with stories satirizing government doublespeak (a presidential press conference aboard "the Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform") and for-profit health care (corporate ads for the Family Heart Center).
The images and narratives of the dystopian cycle mimicked the eighties environment of curtailed social services and privatization of the public sector. The 1980s have been called, in popular parlance, "the decade of greed," and the dystopian films, depicting multinational and interplanetary corporate empires coexisting with a decaying infrastructure, offered striking visualizations of this spirit. More often than not, these films portrayed the United States as a kind of Third World country, ruled by its business sector, with the bulk of its citizens impoverished, imprisoned, or under state surveillance. In Escape from New York and The Running Man, society operates a vast penal network, and in Blade Runner and Total Recall penal and labor colonies have been extended "off-world." Such conditions extinguish freedom, and here lie the darkest implications of the dystopian cycle. No functioning democracy is depicted in these films. Social disintegration and chaos have destroyed the foundations for effective political participation in public life. With social decay everywhere, state power concentrated among a corrupt few, and no political alternatives available, the future as depicted here becomes a frightening, authoritarian nightmare in which political freedom and its necessary economic foundation have been destroyed.
The dystopian films thus sounded a warning about, and registered a deep unease over, the economic and social policies of the 1980s, but their political content was conjoined with the conventions of action thrillers and (in Robocop and Total Recall especially) flamboyantly graphic violence. This was an uneasy mixture, and the claims for spectacle and excitement that it encouraged a popular audience to make sometimes obfuscated the films' political elements. This problem is clearest in Robocop, which offered a sharp satire about the social Darwinism of the Reagan era's unfettered capitalism. (A man-on-the-street interviewee tells the Media Break crew, "It's a free society, except there ain't nothing free. There's no guarantees, you know. You're on your own. It's the law of the jungle." A prominent member of a powerful crime ring remarks, "No better way to steal money than free enterprise.") The film's satire was conjoined with action set pieces and explicitly detailed violence in ways that probably overwhelmed the satire for many viewers.
While the new cold war films inflected the conventions of action-adventure with right-wing political perspectives, the dystopian thrillers inflected them with left-leaning ones. As a whole, the cycle sustains a critique and a portrait of capitalism run amok. The efflorescence of the dystopian cycle indicated that, despite the Reagan administration's promise of a new "Morning in America," the nation was fissured with deep anxieties about its future and an ongoing suspicion that the eighties economy was tragically unfair. The future these films conjured contained many attributes of their era, but hope for a better tomorrow was not among them.
These production cycles demonstrate that American film took a variety of positions in regard to the decade's political issues. The new cold war films hued closely to the administration's line on foreign policy issues involving the Soviet Union, although, as discussed, a number of the films showed significant ideological contradictions. The cycle dealing with unrest in Central America was consistently skeptical and critical about the Reagan Administration's claims about a power projection by Moscow in America's backyard. Of all these production cycles, the Vietnam War films showed the greatest ambivalence about the claims of empire and America's role in world affairs, and this perception was consistent with the legacy that the war had left the nation. Dystopian science fiction blended its social critique with the commercial appeals of spectacle, special effects, and violence. These qualities mitigated but did not neutralize the cycle's economic critique of eighties America.
The richness of Hollywood's output in the eighties is evident in this heterodox mix of styles, subjects, and ideological appeals. Analyses of American film are ill served by efforts to reduce its heterodoxy to one, or a few, schemata that claim to explain all. Although the Reagan Presidency excelled at ideological production, Hollywood film was neither monodimensional nor coterminous with the politics of those years. This is a heartening fact because it establishes an important foundation for the artistic role that film may play, giving form to the issues and contradictions of those moments in time that imbricate filmmaker and viewers alike.